A Pilot’s Approach to Grazing Management

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If you work in a grazing business then I encourage you to approach your grazing management in the same way a good pilot will approach their next few flights. Why? A major goal for most pilots is a safe landing at their destinations! Let’s look at this further – stick with me as I do some plane talk as this is highly relatable to your business! Is it ironic that I’m writing this from about 25,000ft?

Many of you know that I’m a private pilot and love being able to pilot myself around Australia to various jobs. In the lead up to a flight I firstly spend some time planning. I’ll look at where I need to get to, when by and what the next destination is after that. I’ll then look at what my planned fuel burn will be, how much fuel is the plane to start with and where I can get fuel along the way (will they actually be open and do they have fuel). I’ll then throw a few scenarios into the mix – headwinds, storms to go around, really bad weather. I’ve got no idea what the weather is going to be like, all I can do is consider the scenarios.

A lot of this planning is done well in advance of a flight. When it comes time to actually do the trip, there is some last minute planning review as well taking into account current weather information.

Once I start the engines, I then start to do a lot of monitoring – engine temperatures, manifold pressure, electrical systems, radio frequencies etc. This is before I even start to move. Assuming all goes well in the ground warm up and tests, we can then take off. I’ll then monitor all those factors as well as fuel flow, airspeed, ground speed, altitude, GPS, maps, cloud, wind and weather etc.  I’ve also got to keep looking around for other aircraft (some pilots consider radio use optional…)

As the trip progresses there is a lot of managing to do along the way. The planes I fly don’t have autopilot!  Based on what the winds are actually doing I’ll constantly adjust my heading to make sure I stay on track. Some days in variable, unpredictable weather this could be every few minutes. I’ve also constantly got to monitor and adjust my altitude so I reduce the chance of crossing paths with other aircraft and hills (they don’t have much give in them).  Based on actual ground speed, I’ll be monitoring my fuel reserves to make sure I can still get to the destination. Can I actually get to somewhere else to fuel up or is that airport closed due to bad weather?

Does every flight go to plan? Hell no! Sometimes the head wind is so strong you feel as though walking is a faster option. That has resulted in diverting the plan to land and get some fuel. Sometimes the weather prevents you from even taking off. Sometimes the weather closes in and you have to change the destination completely (may include having to go backwards). Sometimes the destination you want to get to needs to change from the original plan (a new opportunity has come up). This year I’ve already had to make two major changes to a plan.

The outcome from all this? Arrive safely at the destination when and how I want to. Plan, monitor and manage for a safe journey. Why do you I spend so much time on these three things? Because if I don’t, the consequence is that I may die! Self preservation is a primal instinct and kind of important to me. There are some old sayings in aviation such as “there are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots” and “every landing you walk away from is a good one!” I love the first one, however I add onto the second one that I want to be able to take off again and get to the next destination! I wouldn’t think of it as a success if the plane or a passenger was damaged.

Would you like to come flying with me if I ran out of fuel and both engines stopped just as I was about to touch down? We and the plane would survive however we’d have only been minutes away from a very different, potentially fatal outcome.

Application to grazing

Let me ask you, out of what I’ve discussed above, what is exactly applicable to a grazing business? Everything! Think about the RCS principles for regenerative grazing and cropping – the first principle in both cases is “plan, monitor and manage”.

To implement these principles you’ve go to plan your intended stocking rate in DSE or LSU (fuel burn) and assess your carrying capacity in stock days (fuel available). You’ve also got to decide how long you want that feed to last (your destination) and what plant growth you may get and when (when you can refuel). You will also be considering what productivity you’ll get along the way (ie weight gain or preg status) as that will really affect your stocking rate and therefore feed required.

Once you’ve got a plan for how many animals you’ll run you’ll then need to monitor what is actually going on. Was your assessment of feed available correct? Is your stocking rate what you thought it would be (this will change based on actual weight gains and preg results). Is the outlook for growth better or worse than you thought (will you land with lots of fuel or will you run out).

If the outcome is anything different to your initial plan then you’ll need to manage along the way. This will mainly be by increasing or decreasing your stocking rate and rest periods. Remember you can’t control how much rain you’ll get or when.

Are you planning to have ‘just’ enough feed available if it rains exactly when you want? That is the same as having both engines cut out just as you touch down. There is no room for error. There is no resilience in the system and the outcome can be fatal. The only difference in many grazing systems is that the fatality isn’t necessarily immediate. Your business may not die straight away however if you stocking rate exceeds carrying capacity then your ecological health will certainly be dying! If it happens frequently enough then eventually it will kill your business as you’ll need more and more rain to generate the same amount of feed.

You’ll also never be in a position to take advantage of opportunities as they come up.

If your stocking rate is consistently under your carrying capacity then that could be having adverse effects on your turnover and profitability.

If you’re in northern Australia, you’ll be planning for much longer flights (long non growing seasons) with no options to refuel along the way. In southern areas you ‘may’ be able to refuel more regularly and will hence be planning for shorter flights. The length of the flight doesn’t matter (plenty of plane accidents occur just after take-off). Consider the scenarios and ask yourself ‘what if I’m wrong, what if I don’t get growth then?’. What will you do to make sure you land safely?

May your engine temperatures and pressures always be in the green and your fuel tanks well in reserve.

Article by

David McLean
RCS General Manager