Originally published on LinkedIn.
My wife and I run a small, family farm. We produce all natural, rotationally grazed, farm to table, grass-fed cattle. For personal life-choice and health reasons, we grow most of our own food if, when, and as possible. I'm also part of a leadership team running a US-based, national business and technology consulting firm in Iowa named Trility Consulting. Our company focuses on helping clients realize their business and technology desired outcomes often through combinations of devsecops, cloud engineering, and full stack software engineering practices – all with a security by design mindset (for those who care and can relate).
I had no idea these two things would require the same mindset and behaviors.
When we started, as one does, we jumped off the cliff straight into the work. We are avid researchers, love to learn, read books, listen to podcasts, watch videos, and talk to people who have knowledge to share. And I felt like quitting about 100 times because of the complete life-draining crazy that is the farming life. We're outdoor people, love to be challenged, and are happy to get our hands dirty getting to the goals we want to achieve. However, livestock farming turned out to be a giant endeavor into a hellscape of chaos, cost, risk, and time suck that I was struggling to keep running.
The options were to quit Trility, quit livestock farming, lean into it as is and possibly die trying, or hire someone who could give us a head start into the future.
Author's Note: I have been characterized (rightly accused) of having a few loose wires through the years, making our life journey a roller coaster my wife could never have imagined when she agreed to marry me.
So, we researched for, and eventually hired, a livestock farming consultant.
It may seem to some people that the cheapest adoption, startup, or on-boarding path to raising cattle would have been to take our time and learn everything on our own. After all, I'm reasonably smart sometimes and my wife is smarter than I nearly all of the time – together we'd get it figured out. When I was younger, my ego would have pushed me down that road first – "I can do it!" Now that I'm older, I understand the value of time, money, and listening to my body much better than I used to. I've had a whole bunch of ego knocked off me from years of experience (aka humility from eating a lot of crow), and I know, from personal and professional experience, time costs money, learning costs money, and mistakes cost money. I have no problem with learning, making mistakes, or fixing them. However, I will not live long enough to make all of the mistakes that can be made, to learn, and then change. Since I'm no spring chicken, I bought myself into the future to give us a head-start on this journey by hiring someone who had already been where I wanted to go – building our future while referencing someone else's aggregate history.
I hired a professional, very experienced, livestock farming consultant to spend one full business day with my wife and I to learn about our goals, experience, constraints, dependencies, to assess our farm setup, attitude and aptitude, and then organize his material into a collection of prioritized observations and recommendations for us to get to our goals.
I consider that money to be the single greatest investment spent on this farm because it saved us between five and ten years of the associative learning journey. That means, I didn't have to go through five or ten versions of an idea to find a baseline that works – which saved significant time, money, and health, and reduced risk in the form of investment, return, and in particular, safety.
What did he teach? Patterns.
He also taught us about rainfall, forage diversity, cattle physiology, temporary fencing, moveable water solutions, and how to build great soil – all so that we can give cattle the best opportunity for all natural, stress-free, grass-fed lives they can achieve on a farm. In particular, he taught patterns as the way to understand where you are, where you are going, your progress, your input costs, your output returns, risks, issues, and dependencies – all revealed through the predictable repeatable use of patterns. Having patterns enabled a predictable, repeatable business model. Not having patterns (that matter), as I had already learned, was a mess.
Because of his experience, he was able to distill multiple bodies of knowledge into patterns that were simple to understand and immediately apply. He knew what mattered, when it mattered, what doesn't matter, and options to get from where we are to where we want to go. Let me show you.
The very first thing he told us about was sub-dividing our farm into much smaller paddocks. And what is a paddock? The very first pattern composed of a polywire (hot wire), solar energized perimeter, fresh moveable water on one end, free choice mineral on the other, something to manage heat and wind, and loads of outstanding fresh grass mixtures in the middle. He recommended we sub-divide our farm into 45-60 paddocks (we now have 62) so that we always knew where we came from, where we were going, and what was in each paddock. In software this is an iterative, delivery pattern. I know the start, stop, payload, and delivery patterns every single time.
Another thing he discussed with us was how we care for the unexpected (process exceptions leading to manual intervention) needs of the cattle, if any, and safe methods of inspection, separating, loading, unloading, and servicing. This not only turned out to be a framework (corral), but a conversation in safety and flow.
Building upon the pattern of paddocks, and the idea of flow, we then discussed moving the herd across the farm from one end to the other. If, as it was in our case, the goal was to grow healthy, happy, all natural livestock for farm to table purposes, we needed to look at the farm as a holistic system in the form of a continuous delivery machine by taking the desired outcome and breaking it down into iteratively deliverable behaviors, then predictably and repeatably delivering every day.
So, our cattle are moved from paddock to paddock daily. And while our farm is setup as a circle of paddocks with a clear start, clear stop, and ability to continue, we now have an understanding of where we are on the journey to sustainable, ecologically responsible, caretakers of some amazing animals.
I knew patterns mattered. I also knew that systems thinking and continuous flow mattered. It simply had not occurred to me that how I deliver software would also work in a farm-to-table livestock farming operation.
To produce healthy, happy, farm to table, grass-fed cattle in a sustainable, all-natural, ecologically responsible manner (which also makes more money than we spend to get there).
Small, predictable, repeatable, continuous flow-based changes (patterns) which help us understand our inputs, outputs, need for intervention, risks, issues, dependencies, return, and gives us the clarity we need along the way to know when we need to increase, decrease, or stop investment in an idea.
We had a healthy, profitable farm operation in the first year after implementing the recommendations we received, both quantitatively, and qualitatively. We're having a great time and meeting our goals. We will continue to learn and change (refactor) as needed, when needed. And the delivery patterns we're using not only provide the insight we need to know when to change, but it is a model we can scale up or down based upon our personal goals.
One-acre, 24-hour paddock, with moveable shade, mineral, and fresh water
PS After all of this, it turns out I'm not a cattle farmer - I'm a soil farmer. I did not see that coming, but the livestock farming consultant did. He just waited for me to get a bit of a clue before he changed the conversation on me. To date, the best money spent on this farm has been the consultant who gave us an on-boarding head start. We bought ourselves into the future – and the long-term value we received is far greater than the money we paid for the expert consulting visit.
If you'd like to know more about managed, intensive (mob), rotational grazed, grass-fed livestock farming, I recommend Greg Judy all day. He has decades of experience testing ideas, learning from them, changing as needed, and teaching others so that they can stand on his shoulders instead of starting from scratch. He was worth every moment and penny spent to start our operation and he was the right guy for us. And we gained a friend.
The material I publish is content we discuss every day within Trility teams and with our clients. If you’d like to keep informed, and even interact, please connect or follow me on LinkedIn. Or we can send you an email. And if you'd like to talk, bounce some ideas off me and explore opportunities and options for your company, teams, and projects, holler. I'm happy to talk any time by mobile, chat, or video.
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