After Action Review – a useful drought management tool

David Counsell, Bush Agribusiness , 22/08/2013


A drought makes for lots of tough decisions to be made and as such, will test the capability of all people who find themselves managing a cattle business during dry times.

Some managers manage droughts much better than others. How a business survives a drought, and how fast the business gets back and up and running will often depend on the people in the management team in that business.

Benchmarking and analysis of grazing businesses reveal that there are significant differences in management performance between producers when it comes to negotiating through a challenging season.

During drought, management must address a whole range of challenges and important decisions can come pretty hard and fast. Some decisions involve probability or risk: Will it rain, when, how much?

Some decisions involve not having all the required information: Are southern restockers buying Brahman cross cattle in Dubbo?

Some decisions will test your team when game plans have to change: Will your people be happy if you shift from an agistment game-plan to a selling game?

Almost all major decisions during drought have a tough outcome, even some of the good decisions still represent losing thousands of dollars … a week.


After Action Reviews

In order to be better prepared to manage drought, professional beef producers need all the management skills that they can get their hands on. One such tool that beef managers should consider is an After Action Review (AAR).

AARs were first used by the military, but nowadays they are used by strategically-minded managers in all types of business across the world.

The AAR is a strategic planning session that occurs after an event, where participants review what was intended to occur, what actually happened, why it happened and what was learned. The military started using AARs to review all operations and contact with the enemy, in order to ensure that any future such engagements improved and were more successful.

AAR theory gathers all the people in key strategic roles and those involved in the conduct of the operation to meet and discuss the success (or otherwise) of the operation.

Even in a beef business, where often the management team is relatively small – perhaps just a husband and wife – an AAR should be conducted. A powerful third person to this meeting would be anyone who was providing advice to the business during the drought.

There are many websites that advise what the agenda should be at an AAR meeting. Nevertheless here are some tips on how to make use of such meetings:


Hold the meeting soon after the event.

Perhaps when the bullfrogs are roaring and the radio has hourly cyclone alerts, grab your husband/wife and agree to write some notes about how to better handle the next drought. If you used a consultant or adviser, get them on the phone too.

AARs should be carried out immediately

AARs should be carried out whilst all of the participants are still available, and their memories are fresh. In large beef businesses or corporate, many staff will not be around for the next drought, so you need to tap their experiences while you can.

Create the right climate.

The ideal climate for an AAR to be successful is one of openness and commitment to learning. Everyone should participate in an atmosphere free from the concept of seniority or rank. AARs are learning events rather than critiques. They certainly should not be treated as personal performance evaluation.

Working in Groups

Proactive producer groups might wish to call a post-drought meeting to draw out the best learnings of all members. In my experience, these can be very powerful gatherings. Perhaps at these meetings, find or appoint a facilitator. The facilitator is not there to ‘have’ answers, but to help the team to ‘learn’ answers. People must be drawn out, both for their own learning and the group’s benefit.

Quantify your climate risk

Droughts are a very common and repeating feature in Australian agriculture, so what is the likelihood of you getting a failed season (less than 50pc of median growing season rainfall). Incorporate this likelihood into your planning.

Examine your pre-drought drought plan

Examine your pre-drought drought plan: ‘What was supposed to happen?’ Divide the drought into distinct stages, each of which had (or should have had) an identifiable objective, plan-of-action and timeframe.

The cost of a delayed decision

Of particular importance in drought is the cost of a delayed decision. Whilst droughts can be devastating disasters, compared to fires and floods, they happen so slowly that procrastination and inaction becomes a deadly foe. Consider all the key turning points and ask if all major decisions were made on time. Discuss how the management team responded at each major turning point.

Discuss ‘what actually happened?’

This means understanding and agreeing about the facts of what happened. Remember, the aim is to identify the problems, not identify culprits or lay blame.

Compare the original plan with reality.

The real learning begins as the team compares the plan of what was supposed to happen to what actually happened and determines ‘Why were there differences?’ and ‘What did we learn?’ Identify and discuss successes and shortfalls. Put in place action plans to sustain the successes and to improve upon the shortfalls. Record the key points from the AAR meeting. Recording the key elements of an AAR clarifies what happened and compares it to what was supposed to happen. It facilitates sharing of learning experiences within the team. In busy beef businesses, where the next drought might be 10 years away, having a good set of notes may be the only way to preserve all the learnings.

Gathering vital information

Make sure the meeting includes discussion of the roles of advisors, planning tools, logistics, market information and the quality of sources of vital information used by the management team. Use the information and insight gleaned from your AAR, to improve your plan for the next drought. The minutes from the AAR only aim to improve your drought plan. As the great saying goes, “it is not the plan that counts, it is the planning.”



Final thoughts

The following are some AAR ‘winners’ that I gleaned recently from several proactive producers who are grappling with the current drought.

  1. Our weaner supplement program got really expensive. ACTION: Buy cottonseed at low prices early in the season, store it at the gin, sell it if not needed.
  2. The cattle market I sell into is adversely affected when large areas in my region get a failed wet season. I will watch more closely the wet season and when large numbers of cattle haven’t had a summer break by the half-way point. ACTION: I will commence booking some sales in much earlier to off-set the risks.
  3. I took a bet on rain in March, in reality, we have a less than 10pc chance of greater than 50mm by then. ACTION: Rainman will be used to enhance my calculations of the chance of rain.
  4. My backpacker-poddy calf strategy really worked.
  5. The body truck that constantly broke down. ACTION: Shift purchase of new truck up the cap-ex list as soon as we have enough money in the New Year.
  6. By hook or by crook, we will put weight on the joiner heifers, and we are.
  7. Temperamental and unhandled cattle can’t be dropped off in a drover’s camp without considerable loss of animals and breakouts from our camps at night. We found it really hard at short notice to find that extra man that we needed whilst we waited for the mob to settle down.
  8. We trucked so many cattle, our holding paddocks just packed it in, we found it really hard to handle the amount of hay we needed to truck cattle. ACTION: Keep holding paddocks in really good shape, don’t wear them out storing cattle for long periods at start of season.
  9. This drought really tested the morale of our family. ACTION: To keep our sanity, we had monthly road parties with three of our neighbours, it was always good to get away, have a few beers and realise you weren’t the only poor blighter out there in the same circumstances.


  • Bush Agribusiness will hold another series of its popular and informative BusinessEDGE workshops across regional Queensland during October. Dates and venues include Dalby Oct 10-11; St George Oct 14-15; Taroom Oct 28-29; Springsure Oct 30-31. Click here for more details.




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