April 2016
Feeding Facts

Experience is the Best Education

I just can’t help it. This time of year my thoughts always return to the time I spent as a young man working with my youth livestock project. I guess, since most of my experience revolved around show cattle, the numerous county, district and state shows always bring back fond memories of the times spent with friends. And you know, most of those friendships still exist, even 35 years later. There is nothing like being around people who share the same passion and drive. All stockmen share this bond: the bond of being truly interested in livestock production.

Much practical knowledge about raising and caring for livestock came from my participating in livestock shows. My drive to win compelled me to learn everything I could about the animal and find a way to make it be the best it could be. Fortunately, there were many teachers to guide me down the path. There were the stockmen who, through trial and error, and through success and failure, could share the wisdom they had acquired over a lifetime. The FFA advisors and county Extension agents, through experience and education, were valuable resources who helped me gain the knowledge I needed to excel.

These resources were more valuable than anything money can buy. From them, I gained knowledge as well as the ability to apply that knowledge in the field. The most important ingredient for success, however, was work … hard, relentless and consistent work. Caring for livestock successfully requires regular work. Work when all of the weather elements are against you. Work at times when you don’t feel well. It is the same for any livestock system. All of them require great amounts of work. This work requires the caretaker to give up time spent in unproductive entertainment. Most stockmen simply find joy and entertainment in their time spent tending their livestock.

An additional attribute that must be present is observation and awareness. Stockmen must be intuitive to the needs of their animals. Because animals can’t verbally communicate, we must be able to read their body language. We must be able to read whether or not an animal is sick and, if that animal is sick, be able to at least determine the bodily system affected. We need to be observant enough to determine if the problem we are dealing with, for example, is a digestive problem or a respiratory problem. Another example would be if the animal is moving at a normal gait and if it is not, to be able to determine the malady so it can be properly treated.

Though we must be able to adequately diagnose these ailments, we must also be able to determine the proper general health of an animal. For instance, it is imperative to be able to determine body condition score of cows both before calving and at breeding. We must also be able to decide how to feed these animals to get and keep them at the proper body condition for optimal performance.

Being a stockman also requires us to be cognizant of the environment in which our stock will thrive. We must be able to read forage quality and quantity with just a glance. We must pay attention to the weather to properly plan for our stocks’ survival and performance. Changing weather can take its toll on our livestock if we don’t stay ahead of it.

So, like a boy scout, stockmen must always be prepared. However, it is impossible to prepare for everything. Because it is impossible to be prepared for everything, we learn most of our lessons from the greatest teacher of all – failure. I find that most lessons I never forget are a result of a failure. Many times we fail to see the obvious and those are the hardest lessons of all. Those failures amount to the sum of experience and experience can be the greatest teacher if you are openminded enough to learn from your mistakes. A failure to check those heifers calving tonight might result in a terrible loss. A failure to go back one more time to check that sick foal may result in an irreplaceable loss.

If, in the end, we add our experience, hard work and knowledge then together we do at least have some amount of wisdom as it pertains to our livestock operations. Understand, not all operations run the same, so wisdom about your specific operation helps you to succeed.

Though being a stockman seems dire, hard and miserable, success makes it all worthwhile. You set your goals and determine your own success. Believe me, there is no greater joy than when through wisdom you accomplish your goal. You can see it on the face of that livestock exhibitor when the judge awards him/her a prize. If you don’t believe it, just go to one of these shows and look at the faces of the families who have reached their goal.

Good luck and work hard.

Stephen Donaldson is AFC’s animal nutritionist. If I can help any of you, please get in touch with me and let’s succeed together. You can reach me at 256-476-5272 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..