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Inch-deep and mile-wide management

One of the simplest and most profound statements I have heard that has affected my thoughts on management was made by Dr. Dave Daley at a Beef Improvement Conference a few years ago. He said in essence that farmers/ranchers have a knowledge base that is a mile wide and an inch deep, while scientists have knowledge that is an inch wide and a mile deep.

This explains a lot of misunderstandings and some of the challenges that both scientists and cowboys face when dealing with each other, and probably accounts for part of our relatively slow rate of adoption of technology in the beef sector.

If we consider ourselves and our farmer/rancher neighbours, it is pretty apparent that there is tremendous talent out there, but the mile wide is pretty close. I have many friends and neighbours who are tremendous welders, great mechanics, good horsemen, excellent stockmen, animal-health technicians, business minds, accountants, and grain producers, among other skills and talents. For the most part they don’t carry welding or mechanic tickets, and don’t have a CA designation. They are usually very talented generalists (or as I prefer, “renaissance people”).


Farmers and ranchers work in big interactive systems that include Mother Nature and even other people. That’s why, although frustrating, the answer to most of our farmer/rancher questions is “It depends.” Does swath grazing work? Should I invest in a new piece of equipment? Should I buy replacement heifers or raise my own? When should I calve? What breeds should I use? And the list goes on. The answer to all of these questions really is “It depends.”

To further complicate life these questions are the predictive type of questions that seek to answer, “If I do this, will I be better or worse off?”

Science on the other hand attempts to answer a different type of question. Rather than a “should” question, or what is the best course of action, science looks more at “what if” types of questions. Science looks at variables and assesses what happens if a variable changes or is changed. This is the scientific method and it is one of the greatest tools mankind has ever created. Pure science explains a lot of how things work. It does not necessarily explain how to make it work on-farm, or if we should do it.


Let me give a livestock example. Science has isolated various hormone compounds in mammals and has determined many of their effects. Science has done a pretty good job of explaining how these regulatory systems work. Science has also postulated and proven that if we deploy these hormones in certain ways we get a certain set of expected results. This is the science behind various growth hormone implants and estrus synchronization protocols available to cattle producers. Science does not say whether they should be used — that is a socioeconomic/ethical question. However, this science and understanding of animal endocrine regulation is useful knowledge no matter which side of the implant debate we fall on.

Let’s carry this a bit further. Besides farmers/ranchers, I also have the good fortune to know some talented endocrinologists. When I have the opportunity to hang around these folks and they are talking in depth about their trade, I generally feel like I am at a foreign language convention. Their knowledge is a mile deep and then some.

I get the same lost-in-space feeling when dealing in great depth with economists, plant scientists, soil scientists, social scientists and the list goes on. Having folks with this great depth of knowledge about parts of the overall systems we work in at farm and ranch levels is extremely important, as is basic research into these components of our business. In many cases they are the only people with the time and expertise to help solve problems that may be holding us back or create new opportunities we don’t have the background to discover on our own.


The management conundrum for us renaissance types is how to find the intersecting inch where our mile-wide system can apply the mile-deep knowledge. There are a lot of good applied-science operations out there. These are the folks who take the basic research and test-drive it in the real world. These include many of the agricultural colleges, research farms and other producers. Obviously whether something fits on your farm depends on the circumstances, resources, skills and mix of enterprises, but it is important that we don’t throw out the scientific baby with the bathwater just because we are at different intersections.

Often it is not a lack of science but a lack of communication and understanding about where research and development and farms are on the continuum of looking at isolated problems versus managing a large interconnected system. I believe it is important for farms to continually innovate and test-drive research at some scale that fits the operation. Hopefully we can appreciate when we have the opportunity to connect to deep understanding and continue to objectively ask ourselves, “does this have a place in my operation?” †

About the author


Sean McGrath is a rancher and consultant from Vermilion, Alta. He can be reached at [email protected] or (780) 853- 9673. For additional information visit



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