I have been devoted to being a lifelong learner, especially in production issues. My coworkers and the many mentors I’ve had are the fathers of most of the ideas I have used over the years.
With BEEF magazine beginning its 50th year of publication, I thought it might be appropriate this month to reminisce about key changes in my life and a few of the mentors who helped me along the way.
I can’t remember learning to ride a horse – I just always could; and the ranch has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. We lived in town, but the town was only about 500 people.
My grandparents’ home was in the city limits of Cokeville, WY; and the ranch headquarters and barnyard, which were just behind their house and yard, were outside the city limits. We milked a few cows for family milk and cream. And we had a few hogs to eat whatever we didn’t – leftover table scraps, damaged or spilled grain, and any skim milk left after cream separation that didn’t go to the chickens.
Today, I can’t believe how good that pork tasted. My siblings, cousins and I eagerly looked forward to the annual event of having our pork come back from the butcher. That’s really the only time we liked the pigs.
We also had some chickens and a large garden. My mother, who is still quite well at 94, did a lot of canning in those days, which helped make us quite self-sufficient for food.
Hereford was where we started
We ran Hereford cattle, which was quite common for our part of the world at that time. We saw an occasional Shorthorn cross, but almost no Angus until I was a teenager; and then, not many at that. I just vaguely remember selling two-year-old steers, but it didn’t take long before we moved past selling yearlings to mostly selling calves.
There was no crossbreeding in those days. The calves were light – weaning less than 400 lbs. in some years – but they were healthy. It was seldom that we doctored cows or calves, and death loss was low.
I started hearing about crossbreeding research when I was a graduate student at the University of Wyoming. The continental breeds were just beginning to show up from Europe, and crossbreeding began as a way to move toward a purebred “exotic.”
By that time, our family ranch had divided and I had just started to work for an artificial insemination (AI) firm. I somehow talked my dad into breeding to Simmental. The half-bloods were great, but the ¾ bloods wouldn’t breed very well in our environment.
So, we began to breed the half-bloods to Red Angus because Dad had been impressed with the Red Angus, and black baldies were beginning to get a good reputation (Dad even had a few, thanks to the neighbor’s bull). For a while, I thought every cow ought to be ½ Red Angus, ¼ Simmental and ¼ Hereford. They were pretty darn good cattle. And it was that experience, along with early research, that led to my strong bias in favor of heterosis in every commercial cow.
Introduction to good grazing techniques about 10 years later started the formation of my interest in composites. The goal was to maintain a good level of heterosis in a cowherd without the grazing management difficulties associated with more precise and sophisticated crossbreeding programs.
Mentors have been a big part of my life
Parallel to watching the changes underway in the cattle industry, I was assembling a cadre of mentors. Actually it started before I called them mentors, as I learned a lot by osmosis just working with my dad and uncle. Judged by my standards of today, their methods were good.
But the first person I would really call a mentor was my grandfather, a very wise and gentle man with only three years of formal education. He and I rode many miles together trailing cattle from winter feed grounds to spring range, or from early winter range back to feed grounds.
I really liked skipping school on Friday because most of these trailing jobs required two days, and Sunday was a day of rest in my family and only regular chores were performed. My grandfather and I didn’t talk much while trailing the cattle because we weren’t close enough to hear each other. However, on the way back, he told me lots of stories – most of them with a lesson in mind. I’ve always remembered three pieces of advice he imparted on one of those rides:
If you want to ranch, you’ll need a lot more education than I’ve got. You probably want to study business. You like the animals and range, and you’ll learn about them without formal schooling.
You don’t have to look like a cowboy to be one.
- And you sure don’t have to talk like one. You never know who might be offended by poor grammar or profanities, but good language will offend no one.
Later, in graduate school, I met and worked with Gordon Kearl, who I consider one of the best ranch management economists ever. He introduced me to systems thinking – without calling it that – by the analytical methods he taught. He was way ahead of his time, and only a few have caught up since then.
Shortly after graduate school, I went to work in the AI business. I met and worked for Harold Schmidt, owner and president of Genetics, Inc. His methods of selecting, positioning and managing people, as well as some good one-on-one learning conversations with him, gave me the tools that enabled me to be successful in my first ranch job.
That job was general manager of a sizeable ranching operation. I was young and unqualified in many ways, but he taught me how to use the qualifications of others to compensate for my deficiencies. This has proven to be valuable lesson for me in my career.
Mingling with the animal scientists
I had earned degrees in ag business and farm and ranch management, but my supervisors in the AI business wanted me to get up to speed in animal science. So, they facilitated my connections with some of the leading animal scientists at that time.
Among them were Keith Gregory and Larry Cundiff of USDA’s Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, NE. They became my mentors in animal breeding, directing me to pertinent reading materials and then answering my questions.
I was then introduced to James Wiltbank, who over a number of years and locations, taught me about the intricacies of cattle reproduction. When I started to manage in Nebraska, I began to cultivate a relationship with Don Adams of the University of Nebraska, who had previously helped me with some protein supplementation issues. He, along with his UNL colleague, Terry Klopfenstein, and their graduate students, were doing some of the best nutrition work I had seen to effectively reduce cow costs. We formed an unwritten partnership that lasted many years.
About that same time, I met Robert Taylor from Colorado State University (CSU), who taught me more about systems thinking and showed me that not all genetic change is an improvement. I had a very good relationship with CSU, where many people were very helpful to my work. There have been other mentors as well, and I apologize for not mentioning them specifically.
Take advantage of mentoring
I mention these folks to demonstrate that mentoring help is available. In today’s world of rapid change, we can’t individually know nearly enough to be successful. We must rely on others.
All along the way, the industry was changing. There was, and continues to be, consolidation. Cow size was increasing. Crossbreeding came and is now disappearing. It will come back. Heterosis is too important to ignore.
The feedlot industry grew from almost nothing to a monstrosity that became overbuilt. It will shrink, but consolidation will continue.
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While watching all this I have been devoted to being a lifelong learner, especially in production issues. I have attended seminars and short courses. While doing this, I have met many good ranchers and have adopted a good number as friends, mentors and advisors.
My coworkers and the many mentors I’ve had are the fathers of most of the ideas I have used over the years. Whatever success I’ve had I owe to them. Thanks to all.
Burke Teichert, consultant on strategic planning for ranches, is retired as vice president and general manager of Deseret. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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