Farm Forum

I just got around to reading “Outliers,” the 2008 book by Malcolm Gladwell on how coincidence, opportunity and hard work spell success. It made me think – probably its main goal.

Calving season was the backdrop, starting nine days earlier than expected because one of the calving ease bulls apparently succeeds by transmitting a very short gestation period. Cows were due to start two weeks after the heifers, but one of them calved to that same bull 15 days early.

Maybe that’s why the book made me think about other outliers and coincidental opportunities.

February in Kansas is known for changeable weather. This year we’re had temperatures from -2 to 72, but other years that has happened in 24 hours.

I’m only calving in February because we have an ever-improving corral facility, and the breeding heifers are supposed to go on leased pastures May 1 with no AI (artificial insemination) opportunity. So the clock ticks more loudly as we get to the second weekend of May and sync Saturday.

AI helps improve the herd, building on the best outliers and culling those at the wrong tail of the bell curve. That’s how we moved from at least 15% calving assistance in 2000 to sometimes none today, and from 55% Choice carcasses in 2000 to 100% lately.

Prime grading used to be much more of an outlier, not long ago comprising less than 2% of cattle, a “happy accident” that few bothered to track. Then it became a measurable incident, doubling to 4% in the last couple of years.

Now it’s an intentional goal for at least a quarter of our calves here, as in many herds across the country.

Anybody can reach those goals by using the genetic prediction tools backed by tens of millions of records and DNA testing, to get continually better results from the ranch to the plate.

Bulls can vary a huge amount as measured by expected progeny differences (EPDs), but the best outliers in my book are those that hit near the top in several traits. If I go for any extreme it is docility, to add value to cow families that have just about everything else working well.

February’s sometimes-bitter cold and occasional blizzards are easier to deal with when heifers calve on their own in sheltered areas and sheds, but we’ve had issues with chilled calves. Of course they are born wet, and sometimes a heifer won’t pick the most protected spot to minimize wind chill.

This year we added a heated calf hut, and I’m pretty sure it has paid for itself by helping a neighbor help me when I couldn’t be here one night, bringing in a potentially stressed calf for a couple of hours of comfort to get her started right.

The neighbor is an outlier for neighborliness and that particular heifer is from a line that needs an infusion of outlier docility – but her heifer calf carries just that, so maybe we’ll keep them around to see how it turns out.

We can’t tell for sure if the several more times we’ve used the hot box have made a difference, but all the research says what starts well ends well, and this should give our calves another edge in fully realizing their potential.

One lesson from the book (and reflecting on real life) is the importance of readiness. Your herd can achieve greatness if you give it every opportunity.

Next time in Black Ink Miranda Reiman will look at the younger generations’ yearning for beef. Questions? Call 330-465-0820 or e-mail steve@certifiedangusbeef.com.