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We’re constantly having to change, whether it’s because we want to, or we must. Change means making a decision (not changing is still a decision), which requires obtaining information, analyzing it and acting. It’s easy to look up the equation to calculate a certain value or the definition of a term, but how should you avoid the pitfalls of decision making like false pattern recognition or analysis paralysis?

Doing things differently often brings some growing pains, but how can you determine if that choice is the right decision? You may have heard the term “switching cost”. That is the real and perceived price of making a change, including the benefits that accompany the change as well.

For example, your neighbor won’t stop singing the praises of the new corn variety he picked for silage last year. How do you decide if you should stay the course or try something new?

In our silage scenario, “switching cost” should include the increased cost of the seed, but also the less tangible factors like changing when you plant, educating your employees, etc. The “plus” side of the board might include higher yields, improvements in digestibility and drought tolerance.

Values like seed cost are fairly easy to calculate. Good estimates of the time and labor required to bring employees and equipment into compliance are not far behind. However, what about the supposed improvements in feed quality and animal performance? Where will you get those values?

The starting point for those values can be found through lab analysis of your silage. It’s all there in black and white: NDF, ADF, CP, NEg, etc. This dizzying array of numbers and units should hold the answers to all your questions, but maybe not.

Are you confident in your sampling methods? No matter where you take a sample from, variation exists within the silage pile. If you didn’t compile a representative sample, you could have tested the part of the silage pile that was harvested from the best or worst part of the field. Your whole basis for comparison could be flawed.

It’s all too easy to see numbers printed on a page and think of them as “the truth.” We need to remember that the majority of the values we use to make decisions are averages. Our industry lives and dies by averages. However, animals, plants, and people all fall outside the average. With that in mind, it’s best to account for variation and what it can do for your profitability in your decision.

I have brought up a lot of questions around what you don’t know, but I haven’t provided a lot of direction around what you should do about any of it. There are plenty of aspects in animal production that we have little to no control over, so it’s extremely important to exert sway over what we can influence. By identifying the quality and quantity of information, we can focus on the things that matter.

Whether you’re new to this type of in-depth analysis or an old hand, there are definitely some hazards that can result even with careful consideration. It’s often necessary to make decisions with less than perfect data. One of the biggest pitfalls that you may run across is known as false pattern recognition. That’s a clinical term for seeing things that aren’t there by allowing your own biases to overwhelm your reasoning skills. False pattern recognition is often the result of not gathering enough data.

If you were impressed with how the neighbor’s cattle performed last year and attributed it all to his silage, without further investigation, then you are probably going to run afoul to false pattern recognition. Perhaps his rations were radically different this year or he used a different implant program. If you only change your corn variety, you will likely be disappointed when you don’t see the improvements you expected and budgeted for.

There will come a time when further research into a topic will not gain you any new information and will probably make something that seemed simple less clear. One danger of gathering all this data and carefully considering the factors that can affect what to do is becoming confused, frustrated and overwhelmed.

Analysis paralysis occurs when we’re neck-deep in information but can’t see a clear path to a decision. If you’re the kind of person who goes overboard in researching something new, but can’t quite bring yourself to pull the trigger one way or another, you are probably a victim of analysis paralysis.

Remember that not acting is still a decision, and that Mother Nature, the market and your banker will reward or punish you for the results. There are lots of choices you can, and should, make on your own. Sometimes reaching out to a subject matter expert for their opinion on what you should do will reap big rewards. Be advised that their opinion will most likely cost you money to obtain, but as long as you choose a good resource, those dollars can be a sound investment in the future of your operation.