Sunday, April 10, 2011

Technology And “OFS”

Between my eight year old son asking me “How did you do it back then Daddy,” and the #Agnerd hashtag on Twitter, I've been dwelling on the pros and cons of new technology. Looking at all of the technological advances within my lifetime, one may assume that I am nearing the century mark. Surprisingly enough, I haven't quite reach my 57th birthday. All of these advances have given me a severe case of OFS (Old Fart Syndrome) when I hear about new technology.

OFS comes from remembering when black and white television was the epitome of high tech household appliances. Until I was eleven years old, I had to pick up the receiver and tell the operator what number I wanted to call (My parents number was J-111). There were several other people on our “party line” so you had to wait until the neighbor was done talking before you could make your call. Cell phones with call waiting, call forwarding, conference calls, caller ID, voice mail, internet access or any of the other eighty odd thousand phone applications (we consider necessity) were science fiction.

Today is seems most people are not only dependent, but addicted to technology. OFS has me wondering where the balance is. Is all of this new technology making our jobs in the cattle industry more efficient, or is it just restructuring our workload in a way that alienates us from what we should be doing?

We have back tags which tell us that a cow has been in heat. Then we have ear tags which tell us that an animal is running a fever. We use portable electric fencing so we can control where our cattle graze. We use a siren to call them into feed, then once they are used to the siren, we use the Pavlov's Dog response to move them to fresh pasture. If we aren't calling them and baiting them with a feed truck, we fire up the four wheelers or helicopters so we can get the pasture move or gather done “faster.” OFS tells me a man on a horse is cheaper than a man in a helicopter and can handle the cattle cheaper and with less stress, but the techno addicts can't see that.

In the feedlot, we are using high tech antibiotics so we can mass treat cattle on arrival so we won't have to pull sick cattle in their first few days on feed (regardless of the fact over half wouldn't be getting sick in the first place). Then we use ear tags which tell us if cattle are running a fever or not by turning on a bright red light when cattle are running a fever. These high tech tools allow us to not just spend less time observing cattle but to hire less experienced labor as managers figure all the help has to do is pull the cattle by the tags rather than the symptoms.

Besides making us dependent on technology to keep our feedlot cattle healthy, it is adding to input costs rather than lowering them. Bud Williams has proven time after time that feedlots can reduce their antibiotic inputs, as well as morbidity and death losses by as much as 50% by simply changing the way cattle are handled. Wouldn't it make more sense to simply change the way we handle cattle than adding to input costs?

When it comes to education, rather than hands on experience, we take multiple choice tests on a computer hooked to the internet. It is actually possible to receive a diploma (through a university) in reduced stress cattle handling without ever seeing a cow up close and personnel. To make it even more interesting feedlots are making cattle handling videos and computerized classes available to teach their employees better cattle handling procedures.

Once again, OFS raises it's ugly head. Proper handling of cattle is largely an intuitive task. It becomes even more so when we put the cattle handler on the back of a horse. Thinking we are actually teaching people to become effective at reduced stress cattle handling is like having a pilot who has flown nothing but single engine planes a multiple choice test on the internet and turning them loose in a Stealth Bomber...It isn't going to work. The only way you can truly teach proper cattle handling is by a combination of instruction and closely watched hands on experience.

The amount of new technology we have, and the things we can do with it are pretty amazing. We do need learn to balance between the old and the new. We need to ask ourselves two simple questions to see if the new technology is actually beneficial, or if we are using it to satisfy our own techno-addiction.
1. Will it actually reduce input costs in the long run?
2. Is adding the the new technology the most cost effective way to achieve the end result?

If the answers to number one and two are yes, then perhaps the new technology would be something to use. If not, then we need to recognize that we are only feeding our own techno-addiction.