“You can’t teach a stick to fetch a dog.”

Sean McGrath, owner/operator of Round Rock Ranching, a centennial ranch in Vermilion River County, AB, and member of Gentec’s Management Advisory Board, participated as a speaker in the Partnerships in Practice session at RDAR’s Round-Up on June 8, 2023, in Calgary. For those unable to attend in person, we’ve summarized his main thoughts for you below.

“The most important message I wanted to bring was that we can’t present science, knowledge or technology as a how-to manual,” says Sean. “It’s not a linear Step 1, Step 2 process. That doesn’t inspire hearts and minds. It’s about listening and understanding what a potential user wants to accomplish, and then asking whether said science, knowledge or technology can get them there.”

Usually, that means a big shift in thinking on both sides of the table and an equal amount of humility. From the researchers who could spend some more time in the field understanding what works and what doesn’t, and really listening to what producers need so that the receptive audience is ready when The Next Big Thing arrives. And from the producers who are ticklish about trying new stuff or because they’re not clear about the cost/benefit ratio, and asking researchers to explain when they don’t understand. See heading for pithy quote. In fact, helping the Gentec team make those vital connections to producers like him was a key reason for joining the Management Advisory Board.

“I think anger is the leading edge of learning,” says Sean. “There’s no point being offended if the ‘thing’ doesn’t work. Anger indicates a lack of understanding somewhere but we have to fall back on communications or understanding the other point of view to use negative responses to drive positive change. It takes a sustained effort!”

…And communications, and patience. Sean provided a couple of helpful examples. In dairy or grain, technology is about saving labour. Milking robots are more productive than people. If a technology can add $20/head in profit but adds labour, it’s not that fascinating. The tapped-out producer wants something that saves TIME so he can go watch his kids’ ball game.

In beef, however, technology tends to drive production but the case has to be made to justify the investment. Beef producers with ~200 head have an average net income of $18,000/year. For them to make a significant investment in genomics and move the needle to $20,000/year doesn’t change their lives much/at all. Bump it up to $35,000… that’s different. Sometimes, there just isn’t enough money available to take the risk. Which takes Sean back to communications.

“Framing is important. Piquing curiosity is important,” he says. “The truck ad on TV doesn’t talk about brakes, power door locks and four tires because that’s not inspiring. It speaks to lifestyle and possibilities. We have so much to tell that’s not getting out there.”

So what drives uptake? Partly, the early adopters. One of their challenges is that they take on the financial risk themselves. If the innovation works out, they get the rewards earlier and longer… but by the time the innovation is well established, a program comes out that pays the laggards to catch up—like around GHG mitigation on-farm. That can be discouraging. Nonetheless, the peer-to-peer network is a hugely valuable bridge for going that final mile.

“All the formal extension we can afford to do or pay to do is probably 10% as effective as peer-to-peer,” says Sean. “Peer-to-peer says, ‘I know you and trust you. I know you have family pressures. I know the price of canola is in the tank so there’s pressure there, too.’ Connections like these are a great place to start. The challenge is getting the research community to become peers.

Challenge, indeed. Most ag researchers aren’t farm-bred or even local. They don’t speak the same lingo as producers. But not every researcher needs to become a peer. Some just aren’t wired that way, and shouldn’t be forced into situations they’re not equipped for. Circling back to that shift in thinking… producers’ knowledge base is an inch deep and a mile wide. For researchers, it’s the opposite. Both are indispensable. The trick is finding where the two mesh.

As for the laggards, see heading again. That said, anybody who manages a business is accountable for making it successful so it’s up to them to seek out information or work towards their goal or vision. Sean explains with his own example. Round Rock Ranchings’ vision statement is “The Best Beef in a Better World.”

“When technology becomes available, I ask myself, ‘does it move us towards our vision’?” he says. “If No, then I put it aside. If Yes, I look deeper or do some math. Most producers don’t have a formal vision—but they do have a general idea. We need to align them with technology and information that excites them and moves them towards their goals. That’s why the listening piece is so important.”

“Research is about what we don’t know. We’re spending money on it but we don’t know the implications. That’s why we’re doing it.”

Sean McGrath


At the Grill with William Torres: The value of research

This month’s At The Grill feature by William Torres (storyteller, empathetic connector and resonate catalyst) talks about the research organizations working to support Canada’s beef industry.

Research money, where does it go? Well, the simple answer is, To you!

I’ve been asked a few times, all this research that all the colleges, universities, and organizations do, where are the results? I think that we (the producers) expect our scientists and representatives to walk onto our operation and be like, “Howdy, do you have time to talk about the latest findings in cattle genomics?”

The reality is, it’s nearly impossible to visit every single farm, ranch, and/or feedlot operation in the province. However, the information is there and it’s available to you. Whether you want to know about cattle genomics, forage options, heifer and sire selection, our researchers put together symposiums, farm days, and a variety of events to share the latest information with the public. Additionally, there are multiple provincial and federal sources on the internet where you can easily search and access your specific topic of interest (Gentec’s newsletter provides a current list every month).

Show me proof! No problem, lets start right here;

Livestock Gentec is the “Centre for research and commercialization of genomics technologies for livestock competitiveness and sustainability.” Established in 2010, it is a “trusted source of industry-led research and knowledge and tech transfer services, partnering with existing entities and targeting genetic improvement in beef and pork.” Who can you contact? John Basarab is the Head of Beef Operations. Jenny Patterson is our Pork Liaison. You can phone 780.248.1740 or send an email to the general inbox for information.

The Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) is also an excellent choice of Canada-based information. BCRC is “Canada’s national industry-led funding agency for beef, cattle, and forage research. The BCRC’s mandate is to determine research and development priorities for the Canadian beef cattle industry and to administer Canadian Beef Cattle Check-Off funds allocated to research.” The Function and Funding page provides a breakdown of where all the research funds go. Since these are your check-off dollars, it’s nice to see how your money is being spent to benefit our industry and keep Canadian beef at the forefront of the markets. Who can you contact? Reynold Bergen is the Science Director ((403) 451-1180). He also has an ability to translate PhD into lay language. Tracy Herbert ((306) 850-5026 ) is the Extension and Communication Director, her role is to focus on accelerating the adoption of innovations.

Olds College Technology Technology Access Centre for Livestock Production is another great source for information, and where to visit live applications of established and new technology at the forefront of our industry. Plus, it hosts an annual gathering of all cool things technology every August. Sean Thompson is the Manager ((403) 556-8314).

Lakeland College Lakeland College Applied Research. Lakeland’s tactical focus for applied research activity is to advance real-world agricultural productivity and sustainability in key commercial crop and livestock sectors. It has a dedicated research centre with multiple facilities, dedicated scientists, and instructors at the forefront of training the next generation of producers and farmers. For contact information, reach out to Obioha Durunna ((780) 853-8481), research scientist, and Susan Markus ((403) 741-6850), research scientist.

Finally, several events are coming up where you can take advantage of face-to-face meetings and interactions to reach out and get answers to your questions, plus learn more about our industry. As I said, see Gentec’s letter for an updated list.

Bottom line is, there is plenty of access to information that can benefit you and your operation.