The Productivity Puzzle

Integrated resource management program helps ranchers piece together strategies that work

If you examine one piece of a 3,000- piece picture puzzle — or even three or four — it's nearly impossible to see what the entire puzzle means. Running a business is often like trying to put a puzzle together. You have to understand how all the pieces fit together before you can see the big picture.

For a cattle rancher, the puzzle pieces include cows and bulls, pasture and water, finance and markets. They can be combined in many ways — some profitable, some not. Researchers at the Colorado Agricultural Experiment Station are helping ranchers fit those pieces together for optimum profit and production.

In 1981, Colorado State agricultural scientists started working with individual producers to identify successful management practices — and unsuccessful ones. Then, in 1983, a national initiative called Integrated Reproduction Management was established to help deal with a growing nationwide trend: cattle ranchers who were in financial trouble.

Gordon Niswender, an animal reproduction and biotechnology researcher at Colorado State University, has been involved from the beginning. He remembers a common pattern in the puzzle. For many ranchers, things seemed to get out of hand just as they tried to get ahead. To make more money, they maximized their operations to deliver more beef to the marketplace. But even as they began producing more, they had to spend more and more money on cattle, grain, and other inputs. Debts grew and the entire operation was threatened.

Niswender and others began by looking for common denominators, some magic piece of the puzzle that would show up at the ranches that were having trouble. They soon found, however, that this approach was too simplistic.

"Every ranch has unique problems," says Niswender. "After working with producers of all sizes from every part of the state, we didn't find many common specific problems." But, he goes on to say, "We did discover that some producers may not notice how one decision affected their entire operation — usually because they're just too close to it."

Suddenly, a new picture began to take shape. Niswender and the others realized building a successful cattle operation took more than just finding the right pieces — it takes someone with the skill and knowledge to put them together.

"Integration is the key to success in agriculture," he says. "It's not just how the cows are fed, when the calves are weaned, or which bulls are used. It's how all of those factors interact in a profitable big picture."

Armed with that insight, Niswender and the others went on to create Integrated Resource Management (IRM), statewide program that helps individual ranchers, communities, students, and researchers better understand the puzzle that is agricultural management.

Often, when the team sat down to look at a ranch's financial and production records, it also was the first time the costs and profits of each piece of the operation had been broken down in detail. "You can't walk onto a place and predict the problem just by looking around," Niswender warns. "You have to break it down and look at it piece by piece."

Since 1983, IRM has developed programs and specific methods for building a successful big picture that are passed on through community workshops and field days. IRM has even changed the way agricultural management is taught in the classroom at Colorado State University.

"We now teach students to look at each scenario and see how it works within the operation, before adopting a new practice," Niswender says. "In modern agriculture, you may have more possibilities and outcomes, but you also have more opportunities to mess things up. And you can't just understand cattle nutrition and reproduction; you have to understand how those things interact with everything else and all of the potential outcomes."