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Are You 'Chasing the Silver Bullet'?

Posted Jun. 30, 2005

It is probably the most common mistake made by professional stocker producers. It sneaks up on the best managers, causing them to waste money they don't ever realize they are wasting. It looks normal on the surface, but over time can rob several dollars per head from every animal. What am I talking about? Chasing the "silver bullet."

It usually goes like this: A stocker producer starts in the business with a very basic processing program, including a couple of vaccinations, castration, etc. He gets along great for several loads of cattle, or maybe even a year or two. Then, he gets that load of cattle that is a "wreck." His death loss triples, and he treats four times as many cattle as before. He panics and assumes his vaccines have "quit working." He reaches for the silver bullet and adds a new, more expensive vaccine, or antibiotic, or probiotic or something. The next load of cattle gets this new treatment; pulls and death loss go back to normal, and the silver bullet gets the credit.

This new protocol continues until he gets into another wreck and needs a new silver bullet. He adds it to the protocol, and it "fixes" the next load of cattle. Everybody is happy, except now he has two silver bullets in his standard protocol, costing anywhere from $3 to $10 on every calf. The big problem is the silver bullets likely are not improving the performance of the cattle.

Here's some data to illustrate what I'm describing. Figure 1 depicts 14 loads of cattle a stocker producer received over the course of 11 days. The cattle were all the same type, came from sale barns in a small region and were bought by only three buyers. They were all handled exactly the same once they got to the producer's ranch, except that half of the cattle in each load got a metaphylatic antibiotic.

Let's walk through the thought process of managing these cattle. Trucks 1 and 2 arrive, and cattle health performance is what we expect. Truck 3 gets along great. Truck 4 comes in, and we start to panic. Truck 5 confirms our suspicions that we need a silver bullet. But, in this case, we didn't change anything about how we handled these cattle. Truck 6 falls right back to our expected performance. What does that mean? The silver bullet we might have added would not have been responsible for "fixing" our wreck. The wreck was going away anyway! All the silver bullet would have done was increase cost.

Figure 2 is an even more dramatic example. It shows how much the metaphylaxis treatment decreased morbidity rate. If we look at Truck 1 only, we have to assume that this treatment is not helping and costs way more than it is worth. Truck 2 says it might have some merit. Truck 3 says you can't live without it, and it is worth five times what it costs. Truck 4 goes back to maybe; so on and so forth. If you just look at any one truck, you miss the big picture. Look at the forest, and don't get distracted, in the heat of the moment, by the trees.

Conclusion: Don't make decisions based on one truck load of cattle. It isn't a reliable observation. If you don't run enough cattle of your own to get good, reliable data, get a consultant who collects enough data from several customers and understands this concept. Weight the results from many loads of cattle much more than results from a limited observation.

If you want to learn more about this process, I highly recommend "Understanding Variation: The Key to Managing Chaos" by Don Wheeler. It is a short book written in layman's terms and will really open your eyes to this concept. I want to thank Fred Reuter, DVM, and Gerald Mechor, DVM, for the use and initial interpretation of this data.

"The main thing is to always remember to keep the main thing the main thing." - Unknown