The ball and chain of indecisiveness
A rancher that I deeply respect once told me that the worst decision is no decision at all. This statement stopped me in my tracks. At first I wanted to reject it and rebut that we should always proceed with caution rather than making an impulsive choice, just for the sake of it. But before I put my foot in my mouth, I did some self reflection and realized that he was really telling me that being fearful of making a bad choice and not taking action because of this insecurity is maybe the greatest failure of all. It’s better to pick a path and move on and avoid the temptation to put a choice off until “the time is right”… which I fear is the forbidden fruit our sheep industry has taken a bite from.
We are all creatures of habit and making a decision that is new or different can be a hard thing to do. For me, being slow to commit to a new path forward is a result of my own tendency to overthink and and maybe too much education. High school and much of a BS degree tends to teach us about a “black and white” world. However, graduate school tends to be much more of a “shades of grey” understanding of science. In the context of agriculture, living things are complex and certain actions or decisions about their management can lead to many different outcomes. I have a tendency to try and work through every detail and hem haw around until the ghost of that old rancher appears on my shoulder and yells at me to “just make a choice already!”
It is much easier to stick to what we have done, as we have a better idea of what the outcome will be. However, it is much harder to contemplate what the long-term impact of failing to make a decision to try something new. It’s also easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the negative side once we have made a new decision and proclaiming “I’ll never do that again!” as soon as the slightest drawback is observed. Even I am guilty of getting lost in the nuances and forgetting the bigger picture, which may in fact be a net positive.
Let’s focus this on a genetic selection in small ruminants. In Texas, most sheep and goat raisers are using the same principles of selecting replacement breeding stock as our grandparents, which is relying on our visual appraisal of a well fed animal. Yet, we have known for decades that visual selection will not allow us to make improvements in reproduction, parasite resistance, and envirnomental fitness. And for decades, technology has been available to aid us to select animals that are more productive within commercial conditions.
Failing to make a decision to try a different approach to genetic selection has not only kept our industry from reaching its full potential but it has also allowed other animal proteins and foreign imports to gain a competitive advantage. For instance, New Zealand had a similar 80% lamb crop 30 years ago. And through genetic selection and improved management their national lamb crop has increased roughly 50%. Australia has adopted similar technology and cross-breeding schemes that allow them to capture ~50% of the American lamb market. Chicken, Pork, and to a lesser degree Beef have all improved their production efficiency over the last 3 decades. Not all of this is from genetic selection but genetics are the foundation of animal performance.
We in the research community can be victim to this tendency as well. For instance, the centralized ram test was hosted at Sonora and San Angelo for nearly 70 years. In the early days, it was the best technology available for genetic selection. The test was very effective at improving growth rate and fleece weights, while maintaining low micron, high quality wool. However, the last couple decades of the test, it became apparent that the sheep were getting too big to sustain healthy productive ewes on native rangelands. As a result, it required extra feed to maintain optimal body condition, likely reduced reproductive potential, and increased susceptibility to parasites. This test was cancelled to encourage breeders to use a better genetic testing program that generated estimated breeding values from sheep raised on the ranch. But this decision was about 20 years late. And during those 20 years, much of the finewool sheep industry in Texas was been replaced by smaller, more environmentally fit hair sheep.
My point is not that genetic selection is the primary reason for all of the issues we have in the small ruminant industry. It is much more complicated than that. But it is a good example of how the failure to make a decision to try something new because we are skeptical it will work or assume the effort required will not provide a good return on investment can cripple an industry’s ability to remain competitive.
The brighter side of this is those other industries whom have been quick to adopt technology have made a lot of mistakes which we can learn from and avoid making them ourselves. While, the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time it today. Let’s not continue to be indecisive if we want to grow our industry for ourselves and the next generation. And history has continually shown us that making the easy decision is not always the best one.
To provide feedback on this article or request topics for future articles, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 325-657-7324. For general questions about sheep and goats, contact your local Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service county office. If they can’t answer your question, they have access to someone who can.