One of the perks (or drawbacks, depending on your perspective) of my off farm profession, is that I get to spend a lot of time listening to presentations about new leadership techniques that suggest different approaches to people management. While these presentations can often be a little dry, (and since my mind tends to wander towards our cattle operation anyways), one of the things I like to do is see whether these ‘business management theories’ can relate back to how we operate our farm.
One suggestion that we heard about this spring, was the 20/60/20 Concept. It turned out to be an idea that I thought could be readily applied to the cow herd.
The idea of 20/60/20 is fairly straight forward:
20% of the people you manage (or coach) are self starters, and always do what is needed to be done
60% of the people generally do what need to be done, but need to be reminded, coached or encouraged in order for them to reach their full potential.
20% of the people are consistently poor performers and often become time sinks, with improvement only ever occasionally happening.
The challenge to coaching this diverse group of people is that our tendencies are to spend all of our time coaching and working with the top 20% and bottom 20%, while spending very little time with the middle. The reality is, that from a performance improvement perspective, changing the management focus from the 20’s on either end to that 60% in the middle, is where you will generate the biggest improvement in overall team results. By coaching that 60% in the middle, and ensuring that they are successful, you will provide a much broader base of success for the entire group.
I think it is only human nature that as ranchers, we like to focus on our top end cows or that top 20%. These are the ones that often get flushed, and we spend hours trying to decide the perfect mating to cross. These cows have pictures on our phones. They anchor our program, are highly visible and often produce those high sellers in our bull sale. They get the attention, other breeders follow their cow families, and we often get interest from other parts of the country. They are truly elite individuals. The other perspective about them though, is that they are so strong and such powerful individuals, that at breeding time you could close your eyes, pick a straw out of the tank at random, and she would still have a top-end calf. This brings to mind one of the great lines that dad has always used growing up. When describing some of our top cows, he would often say: “she could be bred to a billy-goat and still have a great calf”. So if these strong individuals are ‘foolproof’, and will have a good calf regardless, despite how much fun they are, maybe we should instead be focusing on other areas of the cow herd.
The 20% at the bottom of the herd also stick out. They are the ones that you always find yourself making excuses for (“we kept her around for a recip, but she bred back to the bull; commercial prices are good, so now we’ll keep her another year…”) or keeping because she has that one good trait (polled, outcross) that you are hoping she’ll pass along to a (better) next generation, while hoping all those traits you don’t like will magically disappear. The challenge is that these bottom end cows also take up a lot of time. Trying to find that awesome bull to make them better, working with them to be a recip, or even just treating cows for bad feet on a regular basis, all tend to use up precious management hours that could better be utilized elsewhere.
Every fall, we also make a list ranking our cow herd; sorted by age and what they have produced – both sold and retained. At the bottom of the ranking is a simple question: If I had to ship 5%, 10% or 20% of the herd tomorrow, who would go?
Perhaps counter-intuitively, I think that with the current cattle market prices, this question of who (and how many) should go to town this fall is more important than ever. It always seems that herds get culled hard during low cattle prices, and then tend to expand while prices are strong. I hope to work this the other way – we were fortunate enough to be able to expand during a period of weak prices, so now that prices are strong, we can do a thorough cull of the cow herd. We should get paid adequately in the meat ring; with stocker prices where they are at, keeping fewer bulls and replacement heifers around this fall should also tighten up the quality of our sales strings. In my mind, strong prices are the perfect time to cull.
That leaves the 60% in the middle, that I think often get overlooked. These are the good, trouble-free cows that tend to float under the radar when fantasizing about the potential of a stud bull calf on the top end, or explaining away the poor performance of a (probably steered) calf at the bottom. These 60% in the middle are the ones who produce the offspring to fill out the bull sale string after the first cut has sold and, in reality, are probably where most of the money can be made. I think that by shifting focus away from the top end cows, focusing on improving the middle of the cow herd, and ensuring they get bred right, may provide greater return over the long run. Don’t get me wrong – high sellers are great – and provide a fair bit of promotion in their own right – but improving the middle 60% of the cow herd should result in a stronger, more consistent sales string from top to bottom. From a consistent profit perspective, I believe it is just as important to get the last animal through the sales ring sold for a fair dollar, as it is the lead lot. The added attention to the middle 60% should pay dividends down the road.
I think the middle 60% of the cow herd can also provide future top end genetics. If we are doing our job with genetic improvement; each generation of cattle should be better than the previous one. A great example of this might be some of the younger cows in the cow herd, that don’t produce quite the same as the older cows in the group simply because they get bossed around and are lower in the pecking order when it comes to feed bunk space. The younger cows are also at a distinct disadvantage when measuring eye appeal while on grass – they just don’t have the volume that cows develop as they hit their prime at ages six or seven, and thus may not stand out during the pasture tour. I think there may be an opportunity to consciously take a closer look at these younger cows, (as well as some of the others that may be overlooked), and focus on trying to move them from ‘good’ to ‘great’; a task that should be substantially easier than trying to move that bottom 20% from ‘ok’ to “awesome’.
So for this past breeding season, I made a determined effort to focus on the ‘middle’ of the cow herd. I will always have my favourites at the top of the herd, and (assuming Jeanne and I both agree on a list) we have a plan in place to clean up the bottom, once weaning is done in September. I am hopeful that the increase in attention to the 60% will lead to an improvement in the quality of our entire program. . . . a larger, more consistent bull string, and potentially more top end genetics down the road.