Shifting the burden: Capability traps - part II

In part one of the Systems Thinking for livestock grazing challenges series, I introduced the systems archetype “fixes that fail.”

Systems archetypes are used to help managers describe what factors are driving complex problems in their operation. The article summarized how quick fixes often create an even more significant issue later down the road. It also covered how avoiding “fixes that fail” can help grazing managers avoid capability traps. In part two, we go further than “fixes that fail” to “shifting the burden.”

This article will help you understand the unintended consequences of quick fixes versus long-term fixes to grazing problems. The first image describes three causal relationships (loops). The first loop, B1: Waiting Out Drought, shows how a livestock manager may choose to purchase hay or feed during drought conditions to meet daily livestock feed requirements. The second loop, B2: Forage Capacity Management, describes the management decision to invest in building more forage capacity to have more available forage, hay, or feed to prevent forage shortages.

Like myself, you have likely been in this situation during a drought. Unfortunately, I was blind to a very real and growing problem, Limited Resources (R1). The third loop illustrates how the quick fix of purchasing hay and feed leads to spending large amounts of capital. Consequently, this diminishes a producer’s ability to invest in the long-term fix, improving forage capacity.

Improving forage capacity may take the form of enhancing pasture yields, increasing hay storage, or herd size management (avoid running operations at 100% capacity).

The graph demonstrates the differences in average cost over time between the quick fix and the long-term fix. The “Purchase Hay and Feed” quick fix results in cost spikes across the eight years. The quick fix has led to baseline costs in average years where drought or other issues do not occur. Notice how after year four, a drought year, the costs do not return to the baseline but remain high.

Two important things have taken place. First, the producer is likely taking a profit loss from reducing their herd size by selling at low market prices. Although herd size is reduced, retained cattle likely still require additional hay and feed because pasture recovery has been delayed from overgrazing. Secondly, this situation limits (R1) the producer’s available capital and physical grass resources, preventing them from adopting alternative long-term strategies like investing in forage management capacity (B2).

Conversely, the long-term investment strategies would likely result in the producer remaining profitable and maintaining their desired herd size during drought. Benefits include rapid forage recovery after low soil moisture conditions because grass roots have not been severely damaged by overgrazing. You might be thinking, “easy for you to say, the long-term fix costs time and money; it is hard!”

This is absolutely correct, and there certainly is a delay before a return on investment is realized. Therefore, grazing managers should carefully consider the increased costs and potential profit losses under normal and dry conditions. Differences in time to see a return on investment also very among which strategy is implemented, such as improving yields compared to storing additional hay.

The important thing is to clearly understand the unintended consequences and delays to maintain clear expectations regarding short and long-term grazing management decisions. Applying Systems Thinking in the form of causal mapping and graphs over time is a great tool to help your operation assess alternative grazing strategies.

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