Systems Thinking in Bovine Practice

Livestock production systems involve complex interrelationships between multiple factors affecting health, performance and profit, requiring a systems approach toward problem-solving. ( John Maday )

Farmers and ranchers develop a natural affinity toward “systems thinking,” says John Groves, DVM, with Livestock Vet Services in Eldon, Missouri. They understand that agricultural production is a complex system, involving interactions between plants, animals, sunlight, soil, water, microbes and many other factors influencing outcomes. Systems thinking, as a means of problem solving, involves big-picture consideration of all those factors, instead of linear cause-and-effect thinking.

Groves discussed how systems thinking applies to veterinary medicine during the recent American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) conference, which followed a theme of “Become Indispensable.” His presentation outlined how veterinarians can use systems thinking to engage client in long-term problem solving rather than simply reacting when problems arise.

Veterinarians, Groves says, generally follow a linear thought process based on their training. In a disease-outbreak event, they look at herd history and signs of illness, conduct examinations, determine a differential diagnosis, then a final diagnosis, treat the animals, then monitor the results. In a systems approach, the veterinarian still treats the sickness for a short-term solution, but also looks further to identify trends, patterns and the forces involved in the disease event.

For example, Groves cites a stocker operator experiencing a high morbidity rate, which the veterinarian attributes to poor preconditioning and weaning practices on the operations supplying the calves. Linear thinking might suggest paying lower prices for those calves in the future, but that approach does not truly solve the problem. Systems thinking would involve going back to the cow-calf herds, identifying weaknesses and instituting changes to improve calf health and immunity.

Groves notes though, that systems tend to resist change, and the real leverage points in a system often are displaced in space and time from the “symptoms,” such as insufficient vaccination in a cow herd affecting health of calves at the stocker or feeder level. And, he says, sometimes long-term solutions involve short-term pain, such as a cow-calf producer accepting higher preconditioning costs in hopes of eventually earning higher calf prices.

In a veterinary example, Groves says if a practice feels financial pressure, they might, in the short term, focus on their highest-margin services. In the longer term though, the practice probably should evaluate the evolving needs of their clients, identify future service opportunities and develop new skills as needed.

For more on “becoming indispensable” from the AABP conference, see these articles on

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