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Feedback loops

Feedback loops and your cow herd

Are you a furnace running your ranch without a thermostat?

It is hard to beat a good cast iron skillet. If properly seasoned, they are the original non-stick pan. If maintained, they last generations. I would even argue that a steak seared on smoking hot cast iron beats anything off a grill.

But they do have their downsides: just this morning, I burned one of my fingers touching the handle of one of mine. It isn’t much of a burn; I pulled my hand away as soon as I touched it. In fact, I pulled away so fast that I am not sure I even consciously realized it was hot. I did not take a moment to think about it rationally, decide it was hot enough to burn me, then choose to move my hand. It wasn’t something I thought about at all. I sensed heat almost subconsciously, and I reacted almost instinctively.

Welcome to the idea of feedback loops.

“Feedback loop” is a phrase often used in the sciences, particularly in my field of reproductive biology. We talk about hormones having positive or negative “feedback” on one another.

For example, there is a positive feedback loop between estrogen and luteinizing hormone. Estrogen released from the ovary leads to luteinizing hormone being released from the pituitary, and luteinizing hormone released from the pituitary results in more estrogen production by the ovary. Of course, it is more complicated than that, and the details of how that process ultimately drives ovulation are fascinating—at least to me.

But there is a more common example to wrap our heads around this idea of feedback: the relationship between a thermostat and a furnace. The thermostat, sensing that the home has become too cool, tells the furnace to kick on. When the furnace has warmed the home, the thermostat senses this feedback and in turn tells the furnace to turn off. That’s a simple feedback loop.

This concept of a feedback loop is helpful for understanding how we make decisions too. Our beef cattle enterprises are full of feedback loops. We take an action, it has an effect, and that effect tells us—or at least it should tell us—whether to keep taking that action or to do something different.

The problem is that most of these loops are very long, sometimes to the point that we forget all about the cause by the time we see the effect. The timescale we deal with is such that we often don’t realize we are watching the effects of our own actions play out. As a result, we often do not address the root cause of a problem.

The two-year-old cow nursing her first calf that did not rebreed—was there a cause for that effect? Often, it is simple: she conceived too late in her first breeding season as a heifer, calved too late in her first calving season, and had not begun cycling again in time to allow her enough opportunities to become pregnant again in her next breeding season.

That’s not her fault; that’s my fault. If she conceived so late in her first breeding season, I should not have kept her as a replacement female to begin with.

I can start to address the root cause by only retaining heifers that conceived early in their first breeding season, either by using a very short breeding season or by marketing bred heifers that conceived after a certain point. Or, I could purchase rather than develop heifers, purchasing only heifers that are bred to calve early relative to my calving season.

Long loops

The point is that the feedback should change my heifer selection practices. Often it does not, however, in part because the feedback loop is so long. It can be hard to connect the dots back to the original decision I made, in this case a year prior to that point.

Often, one root cause has many effects. For example, I just mentioned only heifers that conceive early in their first breeding season should be retained as replacements. I say that because published data from the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center demonstrates that heifers conceiving early in their first breeding season remain in the herd 1.2 years longer and wean more total calves.

They also wean older and therefore heavier weight calves, not only in their first year of production but throughout the first six years of their productive life. Think about what that means. The decision-making about which heifers you retained six years ago is affecting the weaning weights you are observing in your cows today. That is a really long loop. 

I would venture to guess that we would connect all these dots better if the beef cattle production cycle happened in days rather than years. In my opinion, one person just does not have the capacity to connect all these dots over a years-long span of time. Here are two absolutely indispensable tools to address this problem:

  1. Records. Keeping records for a cow-calf enterprise is absolutely critical. But I heard a quote once that challenged me: “Records are worthless­—unless you do something with them.

There is a lot of wisdom in that. Data only has value when you process it into information that informs your decision. Try to use your data to identify the root cause of any problems—and any successes—you are having.

When you make a change or try something new, have something to measure or observe. Decide in advance what success should look like and what you would use to identify failure as early as possible. Give yourself a time point to go back and evaluate it, then follow through on evaluating it.

In the feedback loop example, most of us are trying to operate like furnaces without thermostats. Make the time, even if it is just once every few months, to be a thermostat. Look over your records and ask questions. Plan to plan. Get this time marked off on your calendar and think about the questions you want to ask in advance. I like the sharpest, brightest part of the morning with no distractions.

  1. Listening. Lean on experts for information that is backed up by good published science. Also lean on the life experiences of people who are successfully managing cow-calf enterprises. Assume both sources are going to be wrong about something at least some of the time.

The solution that worked in one experiment or on one farm or ranch may not work on yours, but you get the benefit of having others’ feedback coming into your decision-making process. You will identify problems and solutions faster, let alone learn about positive actions that can be taken without having to come up with them on your own.

I realize this talk about feedback loops, addressing the root cause of a problem, and starting a sequence of positive effects sounds a little heady. Whole books have been written on this topic, so feel free to give me a call or an email if you want to visit in more detail.

Jordan Thomas, Ph.D., is state cow-calf Extension specialist with the University of Missouri. Contact him at 573-882-1804 or thomasjor@missouri.edu.

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