Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Risk taking

Production agriculture is an inherently risky business. We hear that all the time. Generally, however, when people are talking about risk in agriculture, they are talking about monetary risk – the gambles we all take hoping to eke out a living in farming and ranching. We plant crops knowing that weather, insects and weeds represent a risk to producing a harvest and that market swings are a risk to realizing a profit. We raise cattle knowing that weather or disease can shatter the profitability in a calf crop and that a combination of weather and feed prices can quickly drive us to the point of heavily culling or even liquidating our cow herds.

There are other risks in production agriculture though. Risks to life and limb. Depending on which survey you read, farming and ranching almost always show up in the top 10 of dangerous professions. They often make the top five, and in a particularly accident-prone year can claim the top spot.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but the short answer is that farmers and ranchers often work alone, with potentially dangerous equipment and livestock, and we work in rural settings often miles from help, and even farther from emergency medical help. Most of us have a friend or neighbor or two (and sometimes more) who went out to work one day and were found dead from accident only after they failed to show up on time for supper. It’s a chilling possibility that rattles around in the back of our minds perhaps more often than we like to admit.

The biggest contributing factor is that our profit margins are often razor-thin. It costs a lot of money to produce crops, and the value of our harvest is often only a tiny fraction higher than our cost of production. In this environment the producer who stays in business is most often the one who keeps production costs low. In doing so, we often take calculated risks with the idea of saving money and time (which is often just another way of saying money).

If we’re thorough in our calculations, and weigh each factor correctly, and if bad luck doesn’t crop up, we’re generally successful in executing our calculated risk.

But just as our profit margins are tight, so to are our safety margins. Powerful equipment can crush, shred or electrocute. Livestock can be unpredictable, and in most cases our animals are much larger and more powerful than we are.

Monday I took two calculated risks which were slightly more dangerous than the normal, everyday risks I take. I fixed a windmill and I cut a neighbor’s bull out of my cows and drove him home.

The windmill fix was simple, replacing a worn connector in the pump rod. But to change out that 30-cent part, I had to climb the windmill and do the job about 25 feet above the ground. I wear a safety harness on most windmill jobs, but this particular windmill is constructed of oilfield pipe, and none of my carabiners are large enough to work. So I decided to forego the harness.
A 30-cent part was all it took to fix this windmill Monday on the EJE Ranch. A 30-cent part and a calculated risk.

I was very careful. I wore good boots with non-slip soles. I planned ahead, took my time, made sure of my hand- and foot-holds, moved slowly and deliberately, and didn’t overextend my reach. The job took more time than I wanted to spend, but not more time than I was willing to spend. Everything went fine, and the well is now pumping gangbusters.

But the risk was there. A fall would have caused painful injury at best, and would have been fatal at worst. A less risky way would have been to have another person with me to call for help if needed and to have spent the money for some new, large-diameter carabiners. That’s what I would recommend to anyone asking my advice on a similar project. I’d never advise anyone to take the risks I took. That’s a good illustration of the paradox we ag producers sometimes find ourselves dealing with. We know how to mitigate risk, and advise others to do so, but we sometimes take risky shortcuts. They usually work out okay. But sometimes they don’t.

I moved the bull by myself, on a four-wheeler. The bull was fairly aggressive, and showed me plenty of signs that he was open to the idea of taking me on. I was able to bluff him successfully with a combination of my own aggressive behavior and the noise from the four-wheeler.

In this instance I didn’t make a plan. I found the bull in with the herd while routinely checking cows. I decided I’d handle the problem immediately rather than to get help or switch to a more substantial vehicle. I knew what the dangers were, and I know people who’ve been badly injured attempting the same job. I took a calculated risk, but I made that decision on the spur of the moment. I chose to risk injury or death to save time, and to a certain extent, to prevent introduction of the bull’s unknown genetics into next spring’s calving mix.

Everything worked out okay, but there were a few nervous moments. Again, I’d never recommend that anyone work a bull alone on  a four-wheeler. It’s simply too risky, too dangerous. Yet occasionally, rarely, I’ll take the chance myself.

We all take calculated risks in this business. The possibility that the risk will turn around and bite us hard is always there. We work in a dangerous profession. We have to do the best we can to mitigate risks while knowing that we simply can’t do everything possible to mitigate every risk.

It’s a good topic to think about

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