“You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know”

– Dr. Les Anderson, Extension Professor, University of Kentucky

Centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates coined the phrase “You don’t know what you don’t know”. I randomly heard this last week, and it struck me how apropos this is to cow-calf producers and the beef industry. So, what “don’t you know”?

According to the USDA NAHMS survey in 2017, less than 20% of cow-calf producers in the US obtain a breeding soundness exam (BSE) on their bulls. A breeding soundness exam is performed by your herd veterinarian and is designed to identify INFERTILE bulls; those bulls that do not have the ability to breed cows. A BSE is inexpensive insurance that your bull can breed cows. It eliminates bulls that have physical issues that would prevent them from breeding cows, and it eliminates bulls that no longer can produce viable sperm. A producer occasionally, but not always, can tell if a bull pulls up lame and if they have an injury to the reproductive tract. But it is impossible to determine if the bull no longer produces viable sperm without performing a BSE. So “you don’t know what you don’t know” unless you have a BSE done annually in your herd sires.

This same USDA survey, less than 20% of cow-calf producers have pregnancy diagnosed in their herd. Pregnancy diagnosis is another simple, inexpensive tool that can be used to help increase production efficiency and profitability. Pregnancy can be determined via rectal palpation (including ultrasound) by your herd veterinarian. Rectal palpation can not only indicate if a cow is pregnant but can also indicate the stage of pregnancy to help plan calving. Pregnancy can also be determined using blood sampling, but blood sampling only provides pregnant or non-pregnant information. Researchers in Ag Economics at UK (Erol and Dillion) have developed a model that demonstrates pregnancy diagnosis increases revenue by 69% in typical beef cow-calf operations. This model assumes that open cows without a calf at side are culled. If cow-calf operators don’t get pregnancy diagnosed, when do they realize their cow will not produce a calf? Again, without pregnancy diagnosis, “you don’t know what you don’t know”.

The last example is record keeping. Beef cattle producers are exceptional note takers (we seem to write a bunch of information down) but we are terrible record keepers. What’s the difference? A record keeper takes their notes, creates a report, and uses the data to make management decisions. Creating reports from hand-written records stinks, can be a time-consuming task, and is likely what prevents most cattle producers from using records. A great option for a producer is to use an electronic method for record keeping but survey data indicates that only 3% of beef producers use electronics to manage their records. So, we are an industry of note takers, we are an industry of “you don’t know what you don’t know”.

If we are not keeping records, how are we making sound management decisions? Instead of “knowing”, we guess, or, in most cases, we try to remember. The UK IRM Farm program helped connect producers with information including information about their own operations. We taught cattle producers how to keep and use records to run their small business (cattle). Within two years, revenue was increased by 34% on the 147 farms that participated. The key……keep records and make management decisions based upon the data. Our goal with this program was to reduce “what you don’t know”, record the results, and use the data to improve management. The average size of these farms was 40 cows and managing with data helped increase the percentage of cows that weaned a calf, the pounds of calf weaned per cow exposed, and gross revenue. On these farms, producers stopped guessing and started managing and it made a difference.

Running cattle as your side business is not generally a high-profit small business venture. Most cattle producers are in it because they love it. I argue that producers can love it and make money at the same time. How? “You know when you know”!