March 2010
From the State Vet's Office

Living with Risk

Risk is the chance of something going wrong: the danger that injury, damage or loss will occur.

We all do it. We all live with a certain amount of risk. I wear a seat belt in an automobile and a crash helmet when I ride my motorcycle. I do not wear a crash helmet in my truck. It makes sense wearing a helmet in an automobile would reduce the risk of head injury in the event of a crash…but we don’t do it. That is because all of us have apparently decided not wearing a crash helmet in our cars and trucks is an acceptable risk. Acceptable levels of risk vary from person to person. One person accepts the risk of jumping out of an airplane with a parachute. Another person decides flying in an airplane is too much risk.

It costs money to accept too much risk or to reduce risk too much. Insurance companies have always made people pay for high-risk lifestyles like sky diving, bull riding and driving a sports car capable of going really fast. On the other hand, you could probably build a house that would stand up to a really strong tornado or hurricane…but it will cost you. I like a good salad bar as much as the next guy, but there is some level of risk involved in using the same serving utensils as everyone else who eats at the salad bar. However, I do not believe I could get a heaped up plate of food from the kitchen for $5.99.

Agriculture is no different than anything else. We decide how much risk we can live with and go with it. There is a formal exercise done to identify hazards, decide their level of risk, identify ways to reduce the risk and, based on factors like cost and practicality, decide how much risk is acceptable. That is a very basic definition of doing a risk assessment.

Here is an example. A cattle producer may identify blackleg as a hazard. He realizes the risk can be reduced down to near zero if he vaccinates. Utilizing his knowledge of the devastating results of a blackleg outbreak coupled with the reasonable cost of vaccinating his calves, the producer decides the level of risk he is willing to accept is near zero. He vaccinates his calves.

There is a farmer down the road who says, "We haven’t had a case of blackleg in 25 years, so we are not going to vaccinate." That is not a risk assessment. That is a gamble.

I once knew a cattle producer who lost ten 400-pound calves one summer to blackleg. His comment was that he used to vaccinate but it had been so long since he had had a case, he decided to quit vaccinating. Bad move.

A risk assessment is an educated decision that either reduces risk or accepts it based on facts history, cost, convenience and likely outcomes. It usually reduces risk. A gamble is based on betting you are going to beat the odds. And, if you gamble long enough, you will probably lose.

I would say most producers do not sit down and ask themselves whether to do a risk assessment or just go ahead and gamble. Many producers, who have never heard of a risk assessment, do one each time they make decisions affecting their operation. They weigh the cost of time, money and resources against the possible downside. Those producers likely vaccinate, purchase from reputable sources, semen test their bulls and quarantine new additions to their herds.

Even in regulatory veterinary medicine, risk management comes into play. There is a balance between reducing the risk of spreading disease or being able to trace exposed animals and adversely affecting the speed of commerce. The more severe and devastating a disease may be, the more cost and inconvenience we are willing to accept.

Then there are times when I suppose a decision is made to gamble. No matter which side of the fence you fall out on, we do not have an adequate animal identification system in place. So long as we continue to beat the odds with devastating diseases, the gamble works. If we ever lose the gamble, for instance by experiencing a foot and mouth disease outbreak, the outcome will not be good.

Occasionally, producers decide there are levels of risk they cannot live with. That is the case with trichamoniasis, a sexually transmitted disease in cattle. Producers in some states have supported regulations to reduce the occurrence of this disease that causes varying degrees of infertility. By requiring bulls to be tested negative for trichamoniasis before entering certain states, the risk of that disease increasing in those states is greatly reduced.

As I said in the beginning, we all decide what is an acceptable level of risk for us, although the government sometimes helps us make that decision through regulations and laws. There are a few risks that can be reduced to zero if we choose to do certain things. If we never leave the house, the risk of being injured in an automobile accident is near zero; but I suppose the mailman or woman could accidentally drive into your house.

My point is simply this: when making decisions affecting your operation, weigh the costs and benefits before you decide. It is not so much of a gamble if you have an ace or two up your sleeve.