Several thousand dairy producers gathered in Madison, Wis., a few weeks ago to attend World Dairy Expo. Nearly 900 exhibitors participated in one of the largest dairy tradeshows and featured a wide range of products and services from all aspects of the industry. But, which of the choices is the best investment?
    Nothing is guaranteed. Even well-researched products may not perform to expectations every single time, but you can improve your bottom line by purchasing those inputs that have the best record of success. The proof pyramid helps us understand the five levels of proof that a product will perform to its expectations.
    The most common driver of purchasing decisions is anecdotal evidence. This is the bottom layer of the pyramid because it is the most widely available. It also the easiest to obtain and is usually in the form of a testimonial.
    Anecdotal evidence is not backed up with data, but a positive or negative outcome has been communicated. This practical experience could be some of the best advice you get. At other times, timing or misinterpretation of the results can make a product look successful (or unsuccessful). Your circumstances and your farm may be completely different. Anecdotal advice should not be ignored, but needs to be evaluated with caution.
    The second level of the proof pyramid is an uncontrolled study where data is collected showing a before-and-after scenario. A change was made, and the parameter in question also changed. Was this a cause-and-effect relationship or did other factors change at the same time and affect the outcome? This does not mean you should totally discard any data that was collected, but understand its limitations.
    The third level of proof attempts to hold all other variables constant and only the item in question changes. For example, in a controlled study, the product may be tested on one pen of cows while another pen of similar cows receiving all the same other inputs does not receive the product. But the question remains: Is the difference in results a true difference or due to chance? Without statistics, we are not sure and the observed results of a controlled study can still be misleading.
    The fourth level of proof adds statistics to the controlled study. Your confidence level in the results goes up with a statistical difference and removes the potential for random chance. Often, results are shown with a measure of probability.
    At the very top of the proof pyramid is the fifth level of evaluation referred to as peer review. This is the process used in publication of manuscripts and research results with securitization by experts who are knowledgeable about the subject matter. Peer-reviewed scientific information is least affected by the bias that may exist when collecting and summarizing the data. It is also the most expensive, which means this type of data is not as readily available.  
    When presented with a purchasing decision, ask to see the data behind the product. This does not necessarily mean you should pass up a great product because it is not supported by peer-reviewed data, but, on the other hand, be more cautious because the results are less defined.
    It is a high-risk-high-reward concept. Without the assurance of higher levels of proof, you will want a higher expected return on your investment because of its elevated uncertainty. With a higher level of proof, you are more likely to see the predicted results on your farm and can more easily determine a product’s value accordingly.
    Barry Visser is a nutritionist for Vita Plus.