The more we learn, the more we realize what we don’t know. The bottom line is that we can never know enough.
I wrote last month about a simple experience that caused me as a young man to begin to expand the paradigm of my thinking. It enabled me to see that there was much more to learn and understand. Since then, I’ve had many opportunities to observe, understand and implement many new ideas. The question then comes, from whence do these ideas come?
After the awakening mentioned above, I returned to the university determined to learn all I could, especially about new ideas in agriculture. I adopted Gordon Kearl, one of the best ranch economists ever, as a primary mentor. At the time, he was doing economic analyses on a number of rather new ranch ideas; among them were crossbreeding and range reseeding.
I was particularly intrigued with the crossbreeding research that had been done at Fort Robinson, NE, and was being moved to the USDA Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center at that time. Kearl’s economic work was meticulous and showed favorable economic results from crossbreeding. This spurred my desire to learn everything I could about cattle management and economics.
Early in my career, I worked in the artificial insemination business, which placed me in contact with several animal scientists who became important mentors to me. They presented me with new ideas and critiqued others; they helped me to adopt, modify and discard ideas.
The network of scientists that began those many years ago has continued to the present day, and I learned one important thing about research. You should pay attention to good research, but you should also understand that it only points out tendencies. The responses will never be exactly replicated in your setting because the environment won’t be the same. Thus, knowing when and how to adopt a practice or idea is where your ability to observe and think holistically will pay big dividends.
After my formal schooling ended, I realized there was much left to learn, and I began to attend educational short-courses and seminars on a wide array of topics. These included animal science, range management, financial management and organizational behavior.
Many of these sessions allowed me to observe the interaction of academics and ranchers. I also met many people who could help me, and have tried to establish and maintain relationships with them.
Along the way, I’ve also met some very good ranchers who were, or are, trying ideas in which I have an interest. Best of all, these folks have been willing to share their methods and results with me; and I have reciprocated that courtesy. When visiting a ranch to see something in which I had interest, I often came away with other new ideas. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the many ranchers who helped me through the years; I hope the relationships were mutually beneficial. I’ve tried to do the same for others.
For those of you who have only a few family members actively involved on your ranch, it can be extremely beneficial to form relationships with other ranchers to share ideas and critique methods. In fact, I know of several groups of ranchers who organized themselves to provide learning experiences, visit each other’s ranches, provide ideas for improvement and correction, and sometimes share and review key performance metrics – in some cases, even the financial metrics. Some of these groups have a single facilitator, paid or unpaid, while other groups rotate facilitation among the members of the group.
In my career, my co-workers have also proven to be invaluable sources of good ideas. At AgReserves, Inc., I had great supervisors, fellow managers and crews, and we visited each other’s ranches to provide ideas and uncover problems and weaknesses. Strategic ideas might come from within our organizations or outside, but the input from my ranch crew in implementation and modification, and the development of tactics and operational procedures, was crucial.
Remember that good ideas can come from anyone. Obviously, team members with a strong association with the situation often have the best ideas, but we’ve had many visitors and student interns on our ranches over the years, and I was often amazed with the comments a fresh set of eyes could generate. On several occasions, I wondered why I hadn’t thought of the same idea or spotted a weakness in our methods that was readily apparent to someone with a fresh look.
I’ve found that good questions to ask a departing guest of my ranch, or a temporary worker, might be:
- Knowing what you now know about us and our operation, what would you change, emphasize or deemphasize?
- What is our biggest weakness or threat and what is our best strength or opportunity?
You also might ask these same questions of your children who are just returning from their first year away from home. It can be surprising who can provide helpful insight.
The search for new and better ideas is particularly important to me because I don’t think very many new ideas have originated with me. I’ve borrowed most, if not all, from other people. At times, I’ve combined the original ideas of others in a way that differs from anyone else; in that way, I might be a little unique. However, had it not been for the original ideas of someone else, I wouldn’t have had those ideas to combine or modify.
So, I have focused my lifelong learning efforts on good research from our academic institutions, relationships with people in the academic community, short-courses and seminars, good ranchers, my co-workers at all levels, and anyone who spends enough time on our ranch to see some of the things we do and have an opinion.
The search for new ideas and better methods has a great payback. The more we learn, the more we realize what we don’t know. The bottom line is that we can never know enough.
Burke Teichert, consultant on strategic planning for ranches, is retired as vice president and general manager of Deseret. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.