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Learning to anticipate the unintended consequences of animal health management

Brian Vander Ley for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 November 2018
New calf with cow

I think some of the most difficult problems encountered in cattle production are captured in a story. The details in the following story are made up, but the story can be very real for many cattle producers.

John and Jane Doe have been ranching for 15 years. After taking the ranch over from Jane’s parents, John and Jane worked hard. They built fence and put in new water sources that allowed them to run more cows on the same number of acres, which was good because the financial pressure to make payments on the ranch and still have enough to cover costs of production and living expenses was high.

John and Jane started calving in March each year, mostly because that’s how their parents had done it, and they didn’t see any real need to change. About five years ago, a nasty blizzard went through in early March, and steady rain after that left the ranch a muddy mess.

John, Jane and even their young children worked tirelessly to rescue calves from the mud, warm them up and make sure they got a good dose of colostrum, but eventually the conditions got the better of the cattle, and calves started to get sick.

First, it was just a few calves but, as the calving season went on, more and more calves needed treatment, and quite a few died. Between losses from the storm, the mud and the scours, it turned out to be a very hard year financially.

The next fall, determined not to lose any calves to scours, John and Jane vaccinated all of their cows. Just to be safe, when calving time came again, John and Jane brought the cows up to calve in a pasture near the barn, where there was good light, plenty of indoor calving pens and a good place to catch a quick nap between cows.

Come storm, mud or scours, they were ready with calf warming boxes, medicine and a new coffee pot in the barn. Calving started, and the weather was beautiful, but the scours came anyway. Again, just a few calves at first, but then more and more until the dead calves were piling up just like the year before. Every year since, it’s been the same. It seems like the harder they work, the worse it gets.

If you haven’t lived this story yourself, you know someone who has. What is happening? These folks are working their tails off, but the problem lingers – or maybe even gets worse.

The answer to this question, and many more like it, is the target for a discipline known as “systems thinking.” Systems thinking and the related field of systems dynamics were developed by a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology electrical engineers headed by a man named Jay Forrester during the mid-20th century.

Forrester, a native of the Nebraska Sandhills, attributed his early years growing up on a ranch as foundational for development of the systems thinking discipline.

Forrester and his colleagues observed that problems in a system are like icebergs, with “above the water” (visible) and “below the water” (invisible) components. The visible components in an iceberg are the events and patterns produced by the unseen structure below the surface.

The invisible components of the problem are the relationships between components, the delays in feedback that occur between the components, the thought processes used by participants in the system and many other factors that come together to form the structure of the system.

Ultimately, the structure of the system is what produces the events, trends and patterns (i.e., the visible part above water) we can observe. In other words, it is mostly what we can’t see that determines what we can see.

These MIT scholars also observed problems in systems often follow similar patterns known as archetypes. To date, 10 different common patterns that problems in systems follow have been identified. In cattle production, we often find ourselves locked into the archetype of “fixes that backfire.” The story of John and Jane Doe is a perfect example of both the iceberg (structure driving events) and the archetype of fixes that backfire.

Here’s how it works. When John and Jane started ranching, they were under financial pressure and did really intelligent things like improving grazing management so that they could stock more cows on the same ground; however, not all parts of the infrastructure were ready for the bigger herd.

A calving-season snowstorm, all too common in cattle country, came and put more stress on their system than it could take. Conditions not only directly cost John and Jane calves; the cool and wet conditions, along with increasing contact associated with bedding areas/shelter, put calves in close contact with each other and created a perfect calf scours storm.

It was actually the decision to prepare for the storm and the scours that got them into permanent trouble. When they decided to keep the cows in close and calve where they had good facilities, John and Jane voluntarily set up the same conditions the storm had forced them into the previous year.

As John and Jane worked harder and harder, treating sick calves, bringing new calves into warming boxes, feeding colostrum and other management activities designed to keep calves healthy, what they were really doing is making sure all calves were exposed to the scours bugs early and often. In the end, it was their own efforts to fix the problem that locked them into a vicious cycle of sick calves and hard work rewarded only with more sick calves and hard work.

Often, it’s easier to see the system play out in someone else’s situation than it is to see when it’s our own. Little nudges in the form of changes can have long-lasting and incredibly large impacts in systems. Conversely, our grandest efforts to change systems are often met with unrelenting opposition. Each of these situations provides us with clear evidence we don’t understand the iceberg very well.

In our production systems, disease is feedback that something is not working the way it is supposed to be working. We respond to disease like we respond to fire; we try to put it out before it causes too much damage, and then we put in a sprinkler system so that the next time we have a fire, we’ll get it put out even faster.

As you think about animal health management in your operation in the coming year, focus on why you have fires and not how you put them out.  end mark

PHOTO: By identifying archetype “fixes that backfire” in the production system, producers can improve and overcome longstanding herd health issues. Staff photo.

Brian Vander Ley is also a member of the University of Nebraska Beef Team.

Brian Vander Ley
  • Brian Vander Ley

  • Veterinary Epidemiologist
  • Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center - Clay Center, Nebraska
  • Email Brian Vander Ley

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