Why are cow-calf producers slow to adopt science proven technology?

I have worked with the beef industry all my career, and one thing is clear; only a very small proportion of producers quickly adopt management practices and technological advances that I might help develop. As I grow older I think more and more about this as I want my life’s work to matter.  To help us understand this phenomenon, let’s consider some of the things that get in the way of us changing our systems for the better.

Psychologists have categorized people according to their likelihood of adopting new technology and practices.  “Innovators” are the earliest producers to try something new.  They are usually are young and eager to try new practices, they provide important early feedback on the benefits of a new practice and other farmers watch what they do with some skepticism.  The next category is the early adopter.  They don’t jump in right at first like the innovators, but after there is some local experience with a practice they usually give it a try.  Next, the early majority is a large category who wait to see the experiences of the early adopters.  Next is the late majority who are resistant to change and are skeptical about new practices, but eventually catch on and start doing the new practice once it is clearly the thing to do.  Finally, there are the laggards that are very resistant to new ideas and who almost never do anything new even after it is proven by research and in widespread local practice.  Where do you fall in this categorization?

In some fields of agriculture, most new practices that improve efficiency or monetary returns are quickly adopted.  Examples in animal agriculture include the poultry and swine industries.  When a technological advance is made, management leadership in integrated companies make decisions that impact a very large number of farmers.  Many of these “executives” generally got where they are partly because they are innovators or early adopters.  As a result, the rapid adoption of technology in these industries has dramatically improved production efficiency. 

In the cow-calf business, production is in the hands of very many independent operators.  In North Carolina there are about 25,000 beef farmers, and there are over 1 million nationally.  As a result, adoption is a product of the personality types listed earlier.  In general these farmers are quite conservative and slow to adopt. Innovators are viewed with skepticism because they often are young and well funded, and they sometimes adopt practices that turn out to not work.

Another consideration is that not all technological advances are as easy to adopt as others.  Over my career, I have been involved in a number of educational efforts to enhance adoption of specific scientific advancements.  One of my early successes was with the use of byproduct feeds like soybean hulls.  We evaluated many locally available byproducts and found especially good availability and production results with soybean hulls.  I carried samples of soybean hulls to many county meetings and showed the results of the research.  Over about 10 years soybean hulls became well accepted, and today soybean hulls enjoy popularity on the ingredient market. 

At about the same time I was also working with the development of Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue, which is now a fully proven technology that can replace toxic tall fescue and create a similar perpetual perennial pasture base. It is really an amazing development with the potential to dramatically help any producer that can grow tall fescue.   Unlike soyhulls, however, we have had a very low adoption rate of this technology.  The tall fescue technology can dramatically benefit the welfare of cows as well as improve economic returns, so why would it not be adopted?

The reason is likely because soyhulls were a simple technology to adopt, while novel endophyte tall fescue is a difficult to adopt technology.  To adopt soyhulls, farmers simply had to change what they were feeding.  To adopt a new perennial forage whether it is Novel Endophtye Tall Fescue, a complex perennial mix, etc. is a much more difficult process.  There are many steps along the way including killing existing pasture, planting a smother crop (usually), planting the new perennial, and then managing carefully during the first two years after planting. Initial investment is high and it will take years to see economic break even.   Advisers have clearly listed the many important steps in the process which should help, but which might also scare some into not renovating.  In situations like this where the change is very difficult it may take careful advising, economic incentives, and purposeful demonstration projects to show the practice in action. 

All of these are important considerations, but it still doesn’t make sense that so many beef farmers in our area don’t perform basic management practices (like castration) which are easy to do, and which clearly pay back a lot more than they cost.   

I believe that the real answer is related to the demographics of our farmers.  Most beef cattle farmers in the southeast are part-time, and many don’t manage the system as a business enterprise.  Many farmers are also retired and raising cattle mostly for pleasure.  As a result, economic considerations are minimal and the promise of improved return from a specific practice is not much of a motivator.  If you have plenty of money, then the promise of a return of $20 per cow may be insignificant.  Many technologies have benefits other than the obvious financial return, so it may be beneficial to better understand the less tangible benefits of a specific practice.

Finally, there are societal factors that may put pressure on farmers not to adopt specific technology.  “Natural” cattle production systems often prohibit the use of some important technologies.  Growth promoting implants are a good example.  The prohibited use of implants implies that they are not a good thing, and this works down to cow-calf producers further suppressing their adoption of implants, even most cattle will never enter one of these branded programs.. 

In the future it will be critical for the cow-calf industry to improve it’s adoption of proven technology. Anything that improves production efficiency has the potential to reduce the climate impact of beef production.  Also, some practices like improved grazing management, have the potential to improve soil carbon and soil health, resulting in big climate benefits. 

As we move into the new year, give some thought to where you are with adopting technologies that can really help you.  We often become convinced we need to change, but “life gets in the way” and we don’t get it done.  The Status Quo is probably the biggest barrier to adoption that we have.  For example, many of us feed a lot of hay and would like to reduce our feeding days.  There are many ways to accomplish that, but in the end it is oh so easy to fire up the tractor and put out more hay.  Likewise, if you start strip grazing stockpiled fescue in the early winter and the cows break out into the fresh grass it is oh so easy to reel up the temporary fence and let them have it.   Being tenacious and sticking to a new thing long enough for it to become routine is a key to changing the Status Quo. 

In my opinion there is no better life than caring for a cow herd, and I plan to continue in the effort for the rest of my life.  At this point for me I am not in it for the money, but I do want the enterprise to cash flow.  There are many things I want and need to do like continuing to replace our toxic fescue base with non-toxic forages that will grow modern cattle without a lot of feed inputs.  My personal challenge is to find the time to adopt the practices I am convinced we need.  As you continue to develop your own strong and resilient production system, remember that if  you are an innovator or early adopter you have a key roll to play helping show the rest of the producer population a better way to do things.  If you are in the majority, watch these folks, go to associated workshops and get excited about adopting new practices that will help you farm survive in a challenging time.

~ Matt Poore, NC State and Chair of the Alliance for Grassland Renewal

The Alliance for Grassland Renewal is a national organization focused on enhancing the appropriate adoption of novel endophyte tall fescue technology through education, incentives, self-regulation and promotion.  For more resources or to learn more about the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, go to www.grasslandrenewal.org

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