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Linear thinking in a circular world of complex ranch relationships

Management decisions on the ranch
The difficulty for managers in agriculture is not only that the problems are not linear, but the solutions are not either.

Anyone who has attended a cow-calf conference in the last couple of decades has probably heard a speaker talk about the value of a systems-based approach. Whether you’re looking at your own individual operation or its role in the entire industry, the virtues of taking a systems-based approach has been extolled.

Our brains tend to work in a linear type of fashion or “x causes y.” The problem is, especially with the complex biological systems and markets that we deal with, that relationships are circular – x influences y and y influences x or probably more accurately x influences y, y influences z, z influences a, and a influences x. 

As animal breeders, we invest lifetimes trying to find outliers to the complex relationships we work with. The record of success has been phenomenal but, as a whole, bigger birthweights come with bigger growth, which comes with larger mature size that leads to greater maintenance costs, etc.

The difficulty for managers in agriculture is not only that the problems are not linear, but the solutions are not either. There are so many interconnected relationships that it is virtually impossible to account for all the causes and effects. 

There is also a tendency to want to fix the problem immediately. This often works but is usually only a band-aid because it does not address the underlying problem. For example, you may have insufficient quality grade in your cattle, and you solve that by taking steps to express the genetics they currently have with pre-weaning and post-weaning nutritional programs, decreasing variation by shortening calving seasons, mineral and herd health adjustments to protocol, increasing energy, days on feed, etc.

While perhaps successful, it does not actually address the underlying or fundamental problem of inadequate marbling genetics. Or perhaps the problem is even more fundamental—having the wrong seedstock supplier or making the wrong selection decisions at the time of purchasing bulls.

As an industry we run a similar risk, being too linear in our thinking and missing the big picture objectives. For example, even though we know as cow-calf producers that we have a significant interest in building demand, even though we know that we have had a phenomenal rate of return on our checkoff dollars, even though we know we are underfunded and cutting our long-term competitive advantage and sustainability, we still have not raised the checkoff or made the investment that this industry needs to make in building demand. We even have a few who, for political reasons, are trying to kill the checkoff, in a move akin to the proverbial cutting off your nose to spite your face. 

But in most of these cases, we are focused on short-term solutions that accomplish a temporary goal, instead of looking for the long-term structural changes that will result in fundamental solutions.

Need cash; sell cows. Push a competitive advantage so far as to create a war of one-upmanship that ends up draining profitability from the system. I can make a list for our operation that is embarrassingly long. It is a challenge, though, to sit down and work through problems. 

I’ve finally figured out that this whole systems-based approach is pretty simple. Instead of replacing that gate post that rotted off with another wood post, it is about putting that pipe post in cement, culling the wild cow that tried to jump the gate, and putting in a culvert to redirect the water flow, so that you never have to address that gate post again. 

The opinions of Troy Marshall are not necessarily those of and Farm Progress.


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