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0909 PD: Plot your course, but know where the exits are located

Gale Bateman Published on 05 June 2009

On Jan. 15, Chesley Sullenberger successfully landed a powerless airliner on the Hudson River after failure of both engines.

By now the details of Captain Sullenberger’s efforts are widely known. However, many people will not recognize the parallels between his training and efforts and those of dairy consultants – both nutritionists and veterinarians.



Many dairy producers today feel that they are experiencing a catastrophic failure of their operation. Often the costs of production are outweighing the income generated. In some cases the variable costs of production are greater than the income generated, which means that fixed cost (buildings, land and equipment) are far from being covered. Unfortunately, these circumstances will result in some dairy producers filing for bankruptcy protection. The job of a dairy consultant is to help the producer navigate their way through these troubled times with a minimum of turmoil.

In commercial aviation there is a flight plan for each take-off and landing that describes the route the plane is to take between locations. Each dairy needs their own “flight plan” to describe how they get from point A to point B and also the length of time they expect this trip will take. For example, look at expansion planning. If a dairy decides to expand from 500 to 1,000 cows, it must decide if it will do so by purchasing cows or raising and retaining its heifers or a combination of the two. These decisions are included in a dairy’s “flight plan.” However, a plan contains more information other than simply the directions. A dairy’s “flight plan” will also contain things such as the estimated time between points, a list of alternative airports in case of emergency and the name of the person responsible for the flight. A good plan for a dairy will include several of these same items.

For our example of dairy expansion, the time estimated for the expansion is critical. If the dairy producer wants to maintain a closed herd but expand in three months, the two goals are incompatible.

Similar to the flight plan, knowing who has ultimate responsibility is important when making decisions for dairies. On a flight, the captain has the final word. Knowing who has the final word on a dairy for a given task is important. Imagine the chaos that would happen if each feeder was allowed to tailor the ration to what they thought was correct (beyond making adjustments for dry matter content). On many dairies, cows would be getting different rations delivered each time feed was delivered. By knowing who has ultimate responsibility for ensuring that the proper ration gets fed, the nutritionist can minimize this variation.

A flight plan requires alternative airports for landing the plane in case something happens and the planned destination is unreachable. Dairies need similar contingency plans for their operations, especially in financially challenging times.


Besides recognizing the similarities between a flight plan and the needs of a dairy, consultants need to be intimately involved with the dairy to ensure success. When making a flight plan, the airline is intimately aware of rules and regulations they must follow. Dairies also have rules that they must follow that impact how they plan for their future. Many of the successful dairies will utilize the services of specific consultants to help them identify those rules and make sure that their plans are in compliance.

Besides checking on rule compliance, a good consultant will assist the dairy in determining if their plans are the most efficient for getting to their destination within the constraints imposed, recognizing that sometimes the most efficient path may differ from the most logical one. A consultant is often held responsible for the outcomes of programs they oversee. This simple fact would seem to indicate they have ultimate responsibility for the program. As a consultant, if you are to be held accountable for a given outcome, you must have the authority to see that your wishes are carried out. However, always remember that if your wishes are carried out, you will be held accountable if the outcome is a failure.

Probably the most important aspect for consultants to work with their clients on their “flight plan” is to look for alternatives while also helping them maintain their current path. Once the flight plan is written, it becomes the job of the consultant to help keep the dairy on the charted course. During both good and bad economic times, dairy producers are constantly bathed in new information promising extraordinary returns. A current joke in the feed industry is that if dairy producers would quit using forages and grains and just feed everyone’s additives they would have 150-pound bulk tank averages since everything promises 3 pounds of additional milk production. Often the lure of easy money is enough to get a dairy producer to consider using a product.

It is the job of the consultant to assist the dairy producer in identifying those products that make sense for their dairy and only use the ones that advance the farm’s goals. Always remember the line from the movie Star Wars where the pilots tell each other to “stay on target.”

However, we also know that situations change. The consultant should be constantly evaluating alternatives and have contingency plans ready when changes occur. News recounts tell us that flight controllers offered numerous ideas for Captain Sullenberger, but he identified one other and stuck with it. This does not imply that the alternatives offered to Captain Sullenberger were inferior to the one chosen. In fact, most people would believe that they were superior to the one chosen. However, we assume that Captain Sullenberger and his crew evaluated all alternatives and went with the choice they felt had the greatest likelihood of success.

As the consultant, it becomes your responsibility to identify the alternatives, provide the information – both good and bad – needed to evaluate them and assist the dairy producer in making the choice with the greatest chance of success. PD


Gale Bateman
Ruminant Nutritionist