Plans Are Useless

by Shanon Sims

driving side window

It is branding season in the Rock Creek Valley! This season begins around April 25 and wraps up mid August, having branded roughly 3500 head of calves belonging to 4 ranches over the course of 13 mornings. Those 4 ranches consist of 1 large corporate ranch, 1 large family ranch, our mid size family ranch, and 1 small first generation ranch. This is a whole lot of work, an incredible amount of amazing food, and some good old fashioned fun!

I say fun, but I’m not talking about the vaccine gun in one hand, beer in the other type of fun that I see on Instagram. Every ranch in our little conglomerate is a business first. Because of the long season and the varying enterprise mix of the different ranches, there is always work that needs to be done as soon as the branding is over. In the early part of the season some of us are just starting to calve. Mid and late in the season we are all irrigating and haying. This creates the expectation that we will have the cattle out of the pens and the crews fed and on their way home by 1:00 pm. A few ranches have been “uninvited” from trading labor with our group because they were unable to get this done. 300 calves branded, 25-30 person crews, with everybody safe and happy takes a level of planning we, as ranch managers, don’t deal with very often! In order to be effective we must have the right people in the right seats. “Aysha is 5’0” and may outweigh a newborn calf (but I doubt it), so she probably shouldn’t end up wrestling”, or  “Mikayla didn’t get to rope at the last branding, so I’ll make sure she gets in this time” are the kind of things that must be planned out in advance to keep people safe and happy. That plan gets written down. Every branding, every time.

Of course nothing ever goes to plan. Different people show up than were expected. Last minute emergencies arise. It rains. Or snows. Cattle rub gates down. The plan is rarely executed as it was conceived, but it gives us a solid framework to work from. 

Saturday was our last branding. Everything was going better than expected; cowboys were in the saddle 15 minutes earlier than expected, cows were in the pen 30 minutes earlier than anticipated, and the wind had decided to take a day off. Then we realized we only had two of our three irons. Not enough to stop us, but somebody had to run home and get the missing equipment. I handed the written plan off to Melinda and jumped in the truck. By the time I got back they were 75 head in and seemed as if they hadn’t really noticed I was gone! Writing down the plan allowed us to maintain our effectiveness and operate without the “CEO.” Even more reassuring is that I could have handed that plan off to ANYBODY in the pen and had a very similar result.

As I was making that 30 minute round trip drive a thought struck me. What if this quick errand to pick up missing equipment were something bigger? What if I had to make an emergency run that took me away from our entire business for a year? Do I have a plan that I can just hand off to Melinda, my children, another family member, or a new hire? Would this plan be good enough that when I get back, the business won’t have missed me?

I don’t like the answer I came to. I do not have a solid plan that will allow them to effectively execute the vision in my absence. They all know our vision. It is framed and hung in several buildings around headquarters. But there are mundane and operational tasks that need to be carried out daily in order to effectively achieve that vision. Effectively executing the operations leading to the vision is possibly just as important as the vision itself. 

Years ago, I was lucky enough to be on an Executive Link board where one of the businesses developed an Owners Manual for their managers. Why I hadn’t realized we needed this until the branding incident, I don’t know. But I’m going to work on ours starting today. It will include:

  • Irrigation plans, rights, and appropriations (thanks for the nudge, Marlene!) 
  • Customer contacts 
  • Long term grazing plans
  • Vaccination protocols
  • Machinery service records
  • Management implications of varying weather events
  • Vendor contacts
  • Infrastructure maintenance plans
  • Budgets and profit planning

What am I forgetting? What will you need in your plan that is different from mine? If we forget or neglect one or two items will it have an outsized consequence down the road? I sort of doubt that, because plans are useless. BUT, planning is essential… if we are Ranching for Profit

3 Responses to “Plans Are Useless”

July 12, 2024 at 6:22 am, Nathan Clackum said:

I would include a biosecurity plan, emergency contacts including gps coordinates for life flight, emergency protocols (extreme weather events/natural disaster/fire), and a written drought management plan.


July 12, 2024 at 10:50 am, Shanon Sims said:

Those are all good ones! I’ve never thought of emergency protocols (added to my list) or gps for life flight. I’m curious to learn more about that. Do you capture the coordinates of a few landmarks and allow them to find you from there, or just the headquarters/houses, etc?


July 17, 2024 at 6:39 pm, Sean Cunningham said:

Marketing plan and Stock flow plan, with drought or disaster contingencies!


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