19 September 2023

United States – Cattle Management: Tradition versus Technology

Cassidy Johnston, while talking about aspects of cattle ranching, writes on LinkedIn – At a conference recently, the topic of branding was brought up in the context of the value of cowhides.

“Unblemished” hides are worth more money, but many are “blemished” by a brand (whether a hot iron brand or a freeze brand.) A conference attendee expressed the desire for more cattlemen to stop the practice of branding specifically to add value to hides in favor of using other means of identification, like an EID, an ear tattoo, or even a microchip.

And my initial reaction was “Nope. Absolutely not.”

Here’s why:
1. I can’t see an EID, an ear tattoo, or a microchip from the back of a horse. If cattle get mixed with a neighbor’s, those identifiers won’t help me determine whose is whose, especially if cattle are missing ear tags or the neighbor uses the same color as we do.

2. An EID can be removed or fall out.

3. Tattooing ears is a pain in the rear and isn’t infallible.

4. Microchip tech/price isn’t where it needs to be for us to invest in it yet.

5. The rancher sees zero dollars from the hides of their cattle, so the incentive isn’t there.

I sat with my discomfort for a while because my knee-jerk reactions are typically very strong but not always entirely reasonable, and I decided that, besides all of the logistical issues above, I was thinking about the loss of tradition if we do away with branding, and this is relevant when we’re talking about other tech in the ranching sector.

The thing is, there is never going to be a better overall ranch management than a cowboy on a horse. Sure, a fancy ear tag can take the temperature of an animal and alert you when they are doing poorly, but it can’t rope and doctor that animal. Soil samples can tell you about your soil carbon, but they can’t give you insight into the managed whole without more information. Water monitors can tell you about your storage tanks, but not how to allocate your resources and steward them well.

It takes a cattleman to put that all together. It takes a cattleman to look at the whole picture–the grass, the water, the wildlife, the soil, the weather, the cattle–and put it all together into a managed whole.

Managing ranches well is more than just the sum of all of the individual components of a ranch because ranches exist within nature, which is an interdependent system, and managing ranches well is what is required to maintain and increase the health of our rangeland ecosystems.

We can’t out-tech the cowboy. We can’t out-maneuver a horse. We can’t make tech that is a better stockman than a person. As we move forward into a more innovative and tech-enabled age (which I’m excited for, truly!) we must keep in mind that sometimes our traditions exist beyond, “This is how we’ve always done it.” Sometimes, the tradition is really just the best way and we need to develop tech that complements the traditions that have stood the test of time because not only are they incredibly effective, they are the foundations of who we are.

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