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Keeping Records / Facts are better than Fiction


by Rich Forrest, Mountain Velvet, Ltd., an elk business and advisory firm,

            General Manager, Anta Grande Ranch, an Elk Breeding and Boarding Ranch

                   Secretary/Treasurer, Colorado Elk & Game Breeders Association


ecordkeeping is boring, right?  Maybe so, but RECORDS can make you money.   Got your attention!  Good.  Like it or not, we are in the computer or  DATA age.  These days, data and the shuffling thereof just about runs the world. Computers are now a necessity in the business place and are commonplace around the home, around the world.  Ask your kids, they probably use them at school. Visit the grocery store or the mall, they’re everywhere.  If you’ve got one, great. Use it! Use it more often. Use it more effectively.  If not, not to fear, read on.

Now there are many ways to keep records the old fashion way,  for example: plain ol’ memory, chicken scratches, or the real classic of the personal ledgerbook or record sheet, recording each item by hand.  Now, if you do these, ...good, that’s good, something is better than nothing.   It is always gratifying, even rewarding to have information available, no matter what the format.   But unfortunately, it can be difficult to create, save, maintain and manipulate records consistently, it can also be a laborious task, sometimes very laborious.    Now-a-days, some better methods are available, particularly if you have a computer.  COMPUTER #$%@^ ....Yes, a computer.  Hey guy, if ya ain’t got one, its time to get one.  They work really good now, even easier and faster to use.  Those faster ones are getting cheaper and without one, record keeping is always a slow and tedious task.  

Hand recording or perish the thought, no recording, is costing you much more than you think.  Decreased productivity, revenues, genetic gain, etc. They (computers) will pay for themselves quickly, .... but only if you use them!   Not for those damn games, mind you ... but for your business stuff.  The day in, day out regular stuff.

With a new fangled computer machine, the jobs of  just keeping track, sometimes complicated with the attendant memory loss, can shrink to just spending just a couple of good hours a week, spaced out a bit over that same time period.  Today, with user-friendly operating systems, learning computers is relatively easy, albeit somewhat intimidating when you first start.

A good spreadsheet (numerical storage and manipulation) program is a must for your software library, and a database (data storage and manipulation) program is a handy tool, as well.  These days, several AG software companies have specific ranch or farm software packages that cover most of the bases.  Although none were initially created for elk, more recent modifications have provided for the necessary informational input.  Soon NAEBA will even have “elk specific” software for your animal records.  For now, the specific details about individual programs is beyond this discussion, but rest assured your local computer dealer is ready, willing and able to recommend to you the best of his wares and probably show you how to use them. 

Go ahead and get started, for about 1/2 a bred cow you can be in the recording business.  Not with Reba, but probably with Mr. Gates.  With time you’ll wonder how would you ever did without detailed records.  Trust me, try it  ... you’ll like it. ....   really!

Now, records in your head or on chicken scratch papers are OK, and certainly better than nothing, but if you don’t use ‘em, you lose ‘em.   Especially, once you’re past about age forty or so.  Unfortunately, aging seems to have selectively drained out my formerly firm memories as more and more stuff is piled in on top of the ol’ gray matter, squishing out the old stuff.  Too much information ... not enough space I guess.

Records are your herd’s history of success or failure.  A family tree and album, ... if you will.  The better your album is constructed, updated, and corrected the more useful it is.  ... and the more valuable.   Now, here’s a quiz.  If you were in your customer’s shoes, ready to buy some new animals, which would be more valuable and helpful to you as a buyer;  1) A fleeting memory in the seller’s mind, or 2) a sloppy doodle on a fading yellow pad, or 3) a neat computer printout of facts, figures and other juicy  elk tidbits?   Duh?  Gee, Bob, I’ll take door number three.  Furthermore, assuming that these animals fit my elk purchase desires, I’ll vote with my pocketbook.  I’m willing to pay a bit more because of those records.   FIGURE 1 is an actual HEALTH/ACTION report from Farm Stock Version 4.40© [1].   Having vaccine or worming records or perhaps AI information right at hand makes any animal more valuable not only to the ranch were it is being raised but to prospective purchasers who appreciate accurate, detailed information. 

In reality, those detailed animal records can actually reduce my purchase risk.  They show testing, vaccinations, genetics, and a plethora of other facts. ... useful stuff for the discerning mind.   Useful stuff that will give me a jump start on saving some money or making some money with those animals at a minimum of cost.   Simply put, records have made me good money and can make you money.  Extra money, just for neat, printed words and pictures,  ... good deal, eh Clyde?

Now , as I see it, agriculture is no different than any other business.  Records are really valuable,  whether there on your finances, your animals, your crops, or your colored rock collection. ...?? Yes, colored rocks.  First, you must know that by trade I am a gold geologist, and geologists are paid to make observations and recordings of observations, recording details, details and more details.  

Now as a geologist, I’ve found that it is always best to make a proper recording of your valuable facts at the time of collection, lest the memory fade.   With fading memories, the fish always seems to get bigger.  The sooner you record the better. 

Next, consistency is also quite important.  Everyday, or week or month you must record the same data in a similar fashion every time.   Failure to consistently record your observations or facts is a recordkeeping catastrophe almost as bad as not recording at all, lest you have apples and oranges all clumped together.  Each time, every time, every animal, are the bywords.  As you can imagine, it is kind of hard to evaluate and use data that is inconsistently collected.  I’ve learned this lesson the hard way.  My oranges made good juice while my apples didn’t.

Basically, by timely and consistently recording details, patterns will emerge.  From patterns come pictures in time.  From pictures comes knowledge.  From knowledge comes predictability, and from predictability comes ....  the big P ...  PROFITS.  Why guess at trying to make some money, when with records you can almost guarantee it! 

The biggest and best of all money making enterprises have records at their core.  Whether they be accounting details, client lists, production stats, market reports or vendors capabilities, etc. etc.  Record are core property, highly valuable.  Keep them and protect them, and you won’t be sorry.

 Now, back to those colored rocks,  Well, what good is a colored rock collection if you don’t know where they came from, when you collected them, what they are made of, where they’ve been, or why they are valuable?  They’re just colored rocks .. just like everyone else’s colored rocks.  A dime a dozen, garden variety rocks.   Everyone’s got one or two pretty rocks ... ho hum, so what.   But my colored rocks have a history, a story to tell.  Basically, a visual record of my learning experience from years of concentrated effort.   Near and far, day in and day out.  For me as a geologist, those rocks are like money in the bank.  My full range of experience and knowledge is represented by those pretty colored rocks and all their collection of attendant facts.  Others find that out when they seek my advice.  My colored rocks are prettier and more better than your colored rocks, ‘cause they have documented history, a story to tell.

Now, instead of rocks, plug in your passion.  ELK!   Your colored elk collection.  Now,  just having your colored elks is certainly a fine and gratify experience, but having the records and facts to support and back them up makes them that much more valuable to you AND, not surprisingly, to others as well!  You can show people the what ,where and why your elks are more valuable.  FIGURE 2 is a Farm Stock ©[RS1]  family tree for a prospective 1999 calf, temporarily designated #9723, a Clearstone-Columbus genetic mix.  Explaining a particular animal’s detailed pedigree is so much easier with a neat, clean detailed family chart. Would you not agree?

So, what do I need to keep?, you ask.  The FOUR W’s are the control words here, plus “consistently” as the secret password.  Basically the “what”, “where”, “when” and “why” on a myriad of elk stuff is needed to properly display your elk family album.   Recording those items in a diligent and consistent manner will reap you rewards in numerous ways.  Ways that you may not yet even image.   The best rewards, however, will come from your new found knowledge base.  Knowledge that puts you in control of your future.  He who has the facts for predicting the future is most certainly in control.   He who is in control, rules the roost; and everyone knows the rooster probably has a fatter wallet!  Probably a lot fatter than those hens who just sit on their eggs.  Sometimes, he may even have enough to crow about. 

Essentially, having records improves your decisions, advances your capabilities, decreases waste, tunes your operation and soothes your mind.  Kind of like velvet capsules for business purposes!  Just as importantly, it improves your bottom line, increases the dollar value of your efforts, and ultimately the value of your animals or products.

Now, back again to the hard part.  What records should I keep, exactly?  Well, with that lurking geologist in me, I keep all kinds of records, the good, the bad, the ugly, the tall, the skinny, the big and the mini,  etc., etc., ad nauseaum.  Too many records sometimes. ...sometimes to the point of a regrettable waste of time.   But, when you start, how do you know which ones are good facts and which ones are not?  Tough question?  Good answer: EXPERIENCE.   How do you know if Bully B is the best calf producer if you never record anything on his offspring?  Gut feel?  OK, OK, gut feel works, but try to convince Joe Blow to pay an extra pretty penny for Bully B or his calves based upon your gut feel ... won’t happen, Jose.  Only properly recorded facts on a wide variety of information will help you sort out the best records to keep.   Hopefully, you’ll eventually find the ones which will have a strong economic significance for you.

Like money itself, too many records is probably better than not enough.  Best to err on the excessive recording side than to come up lacking at a critical time.  Keep more now, maybe less later.  Which records to keep probably has as many answers as the number of people who keep records.   Every commercial software product has some recording items in common and other items that are not.   TABLE 1 has my compiled list of important animal information.  Some items are obviously critical; i.e.  “animal ID” stuff,  and others lesser so, ...”Feed Routine”.  But all have been useful at one time or another.  At least initially, the more the better.    Ya know, best of all, if they are kept in a computer, they can be called up on a moment’s notice and printed out to show the whole world where your animals are at!   How superior and valuable your herd is!   Well .... at least dazzling your spouse anyway.

Once you have collected and recorded basic information, ... good for you, ... a whole new world of “derivative data” becomes available.  Information that can be created from data shuffling.  You know ... data processing. 

One favorite derivative in the elk industry seems to be “indexing”.  Weaned calf indexing or 2-year-old bull velvet indexing, or whatever.  What is indexing?  Indexing is simply a way of comparing individual animal facts or statistics with all the remaining animals in a herd, but only belonging to one’s own group, such as all the 2-year-old bulls.

For example, say you have five 2-year-olds cutting velvet of: 5.7 lb., 6.9 lb., 7.2 lb., 7.5 lb. and 9.8 lb..  The average for your small herd of 2-year-olds is 7.42 lb. (the total poundage divided by the number of sets).  In a simple index method, 7.42 lb. is the 100% mark, if a bull is better than average he will be over 100%, if less than average, below 100%.  For instance, Bull #5  would be 9.8 divided by 7.42 = 1.32 (X 100%) or 132%.  Likewise bull number #1 would be about 77%.  For that herd and only that herd two bulls are above average and three bulls are below average.  By selecting the +100% animals you know you are selecting above average for that trait. 

BUT BEWARE, indexing only applies to that one herd population.  One man’s 150% (well above average) bull may only score 50% (well below average) in another man’s more prolific antler herd.  If statistics are available for both herds, combine them and see which animals are really the best from both herds.

Now, besides indexing, what might be some of the more practical sides of all this recording and deriving?  Use your thinking cap.  Here, we are only limited by our imagination.  Everyone will see different ways of using data for their own particular circumstances.

One simple derivative program I created a couple of years ago took the average calving date for one year, then involved increasing the feed rate and quality of feed to the lactating cows after birth for those calves.  The logical assumption was that if you feed better, the cows should stay in better condition while milking and thence go into the rut in a better condition.  The results were impressive for the next year.  The next year’s average calving date advanced by 6 days!  Six more days of growth before weaning meant bigger calves.  And as all elk or cattlemen know, bigger weaning calves usually means stronger more valuable calves.  Extra dollars in your pocket! 

A second way of looking at the above data; would have revealed that maybe hard weaning can happen a little sooner next year, so the cows could have even more time to regain condition and thence have a longer breeding period to become pregnant  (result: a few more calves in the next season!), or perhaps the mothers can calve even earlier next year, or  ???   In all cases a higher pregnancy rate means more calves ... more dollars!  All this suggested and perfected by playing with the available data and implementing changes.  Remember, you must feel comfortable enough with your data accuracy, so as to rely on it for actually making changes to your herd.  Without making the changes you will not realize the full value of your data collection efforts.

Recording and using your detailed records in variety of various creative ways will help you improve your bottom line and reveal real secrets that can improve your herd.  All you need to do is get started.  Computer or not, good records are an essential part of a roadmap to elk riches.

About the Author: Rich Forrest is enjoying his 7th year in the elk business having recently commissioned El Rancho de la Anta Grande on the Rio Grande, an Elk Breeding and Boarding  Ranch.  Mr. Forrest offers his well-honed, recording and observational skills to the elk industry through Mountain Velvet, Ltd. (“MVL”)

[1]   a copyrighted software program by Farm Works Software, a Division of CTN Data Service

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