Speaking of monitoring key metrics, I’m sure most have heard the phrase, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Over the last 25 years, I’ve had the opportunity to work within various environments which viewed this saying differently. Very early in my career, research was a main component to success. That meant standard operating procedures dictated very calculated and defined “key” data be collected. Gathering this data, especially in a ranching environment, was oftentimes made more difficult by the subject being measured. After all, you can’t tell a calf to stand still or the wind to stop blowing so you can get the information you need, as they don’t seem to listen that well or care too much. I’ve also witnessed the other extreme – primarily during my consulting endeavors – that essentially was the result of an “no information was worth taking the time to collect” attitude, so “key” data just didn’t exist. In all honesty, the answer for most producers falls somewhere in-between, and “key” metrics are defined by the applied application by which they can be used to make operational decisions.
At the Choctaw Nation, one of our Tribal strategies – included in our Five-Year (2020-2025) Strategic Plan – is to “achieve digital, data and communication transformation.” One might think this would only apply to the Nation’s endeavors related to gaming, healthcare, education and/or outreach. However, the Agriculture Department is as much a part of this undertaking as any, and we’re constantly looking for innovative ways to utilize “applied” information to assist with data-driven decisions. Thus, our definition of “key” metrics revolves around information we can collect as part of our normal operational activities which can be applied to efficiency, productivity and/or profitability of future operational plans.
At the heart of this decision is the question, “What is the cost, and what is this data worth to collect?” Oftentimes, the answer is hard to empirically ascertain, and thus subject to the “gut feeling” test.
For instance, we strive to retain ownership and market uniform load (i.e., quality, frame, color, weight, etc.) lots of feeder cattle – which means sorting and weighing a few more times than with a “gate cut” approach. Every outfit must go through this mental exercise to determine the overall organizational value data has, and therefore what data to keep, so to add value to their operation. Although I can’t give you an exact payback value, I feel very strongly our attention to detail and our decision-making pays more than it costs, and it’s worth the additional time and labor to implement. This value comes in the obvious form of revenue generation, but it is also realized in customer retention and market access based upon historical performance confidence. For those producers just getting started, if I had to pick three key pieces of information which have applied value to commercial cattle production (and isn’t too overbearing to collect), they would probably be:
Cow Weights | Pregnancy Date at Palpation | Weaning Weights
Cow weights are important for various reasons, but the greatest importance comes from the direct correlation between body weight and overall consumption. Big cows eat a lot! Additionally, by keeping records of this information over multiple years, a producer can determine how weights change, if at all, over time. At the Choctaw Nation, we take weights on every cow twice annually as part of their routine processing schedule (vaccination, deworming, pregnancy check, etc.). Although on a smaller percentage of the overall herd, producers who don’t have scales can utilize sell weights for weigh-up cull cows in the same way.
Pregnancy determination is a key management practice most progressive producers incorporate, usually when calves are weaned. Ultimately, the undertaking is to determine “bred” females from “open” ones to negate expending resources to cows that will not produce a calf during the production year. If possible, try to obtain the estimated fetus age while conducting this activity, even if it is only categorized as “long” or “short”. Doing so yields valuable information such as plane of nutrition, bull activity and post-partum length both before and during the previous breeding season. Cows that calve early will settle with their next calf earlier, will raise a heavier calf and will stay around longer – thus, “bred” cows are not the same as “late bred” cows, and it won’t cost you any more to know the difference.
The collection of weaning weights – even if it is on groups of cattle – will assist in determining the overall value of the breeding program and, if monitored across time, will assess progress. Sire genetics, through genomic-enhanced expected progeny differences (EPDs) and individual genomic testing, are becoming more accurate and predictable. Significant strides to correct problematic weaning weights – with all other factors being constant – can oftentimes be made within one generation by purchasing the right sire to address the problem.