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Unknown Unknowns

As we head into the last days of February, our cattle and sheep prices are still getting higher, and we’re thinking that’s good because of what it’s costing us to raise that calf or lamb. We hear people say more and more, “I want to make as much as I can before the hammer falls.” Well, no one knows when the hammer will fall, and if it does it usually never goes down as far as it has before.  
In the last three weeks, “calves were quoted firm at record prices, and slaughter cows sales were strong, the beef market started the week higher and fed cattle cash prices reached an all time high, slaughter levels remain steady,” said CattleFax in their Daily Market Outlook on Feb. 21.
A 500-pound steer calf will bring $1.58 and a 600-pound steer calf will bring around $1.42 a pound at the local auctions, and comparable heifer calves are not far behind. Weight up bulls will bring up to around $.90 a pound and slaughter cows will bring in the $.70 range. And some people wonder why cattle numbers have gone down again in the last year.  
Demand for lambs is also very strong – 130-pound feeder lambs are bringing $127.50 – and slaughter ewes, at 160 to 170 pounds, smooth mouth, are bringing $70 and sometimes more.  
This past week, with corn over seven dollars and oil close to $100, cash prices for livestock softened as the turmoil in the Middle East has grown. And that, of course, is the big question and the big unknown.  
I’ve been reading a book written by past National Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Whether or not you agreed with all of his decisions, you had to admire the guy for all that he did in public office. He did hold many of them, and a lot of those were working next to Dick Cheney.
His writings about the Gulf wars and life in the Pentagon sometimes mirror life in agriculture because we also face so many unknowns. He goes on to say, about working in the Pentagon, that “reports that say something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because, as we know, there are known knowns: there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns: that is to say, we know there are some things (we know) we do not know. But there are unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult one.”
While reading, I realized that this guy could run a ranch or farm. In fact, he does own a ranch in New Mexico. In agriculture we know there are unknowns, and those are tomorrow’s prices and weather and everyday events. What is hard to plan for are the unknown unknowns, such as disease, prices next fall or some government action.
But, you know, there are a lot of agricultural businesses out there that have been around for a long time and plan to be around a lot longer. As they say – you are young at any age if you’re planning for tomorrow.
Dennis