by Tamara Scully

The National Milk Producers Federation’s recent Young Cooperators Leadership and Development Program aimed to provide young dairy farmers with the tools they need to succeed, exposing them to good habits, right from the start. Dr. Lisa McCrea, Agwest Veterinary Group Ltd., presented a workshop detailing the five habits of the most effective dairy farmers, providing insight into the practices top performing dairies implement.

Habit 1: Proactivity

Proactive leadership is the “core value and state of mind for all successful and progressive dairies,” McCrea said. “Focus on what is in your control.”

The external environment is not the focus of proactive farmers. Instead, identifying problems quickly which are within your control, and making innovative choices, are all part of effectiveness. Being proactive equates to taking responsibility for your life and your actions; being driven by values; choosing to be responsible; and making adjustments when warranted to minimize negative effects.

In real world terms, a farmer who is proactive would anticipate that winter feed may fall short of projections due to summer weather. This farmer would make adjustments immediately to ensure that there will be enough feed on hand. A reactive farmer wouldn’t do anything until the cows have milk fever, being forced to react to the problem rather than planning for it in advance.

“Proactive farmers are the movers and the shakers of the industry,” McCrea said. “You look at the big picture and try to make the best decisions based on that.”

The dairy industry is a proactive one. The changing role of veterinarians is one example of how the industry is meeting challenges head-on. Vets are now helping farmers with benchmarking and analyzing herd data, education and facility design.

Dairy farmers themselves are targeting calf mortality to increase future milk production on the dairy, designing aggressive breeding plans, increasing cow comfort and emphasizing forage and bunk management to proactively address productivity. Fresh cow monitoring, on-farm milk culturing and expansion planning are all emphasized on the proactive dairy farm.

Habit 2: Having Purpose

“Knowing the purpose of your business sets the tone for the other habits. Successful dairy farms have not only taken the time to think about what they do, but why they do it,” McCrea said.

A mission statement explains what you are doing now. A vision statement plans for the future. Core value statements will help guide your team in key decision making.

Habit 3: Having a Goal

“It’s all about goal-setting,” McCrea said.

Knowing what your long-term goals are, and actively working toward them in a meaningful manner now, is the key to success. Planning for the future of the farm includes knowing what you want to happen and developing a succession plan. When opportunities arise, you can determine if the opportunity will help you meet your stated goals. This perspective can help you to avoid detours which don’t advance your objectives.

Habit 4: Prioritize & Manage

There are many day-to-day tasks which need to be tackled in order to achieve your end goals. Standardizing protocols, being consistent with the details and training employees to your standards – creating a successful team – are all essential to dairy performance.

“Once you have an end goal, you need to manage the day-to-day tasks in order to achieve your goal,” McCrea said. “Truly effective dairy farms are able to transfer both their passion and attention to details to employees through coaching and mentoring.”

Building a successful team on the dairy involves fully embracing a group of advisors and team members – vets, financial advisors, consultants and other key people who can help the farmer achieve their goals. Checking in often with your team, including employees, to keep everything on track is also part of the process.

Risk management is included in this habit. Setting up contingency plans is a key to successful management.

Habit 5: Benchmark & Analyze

“It’s not enough to know how you do with the average farmer. If you want to be successful and in the top of your game, then you have to stack yourself up against the top 25%,” McCrea said – or, even better, measure yourself against the top 10%.

Data monitoring is a part of success in dairy farming. Data are analyzed day-to-day on proactive farms. Data are treated as assets, and interpreted correctly, ultimately connect production to finances. Key performance indicators let you know if you’re moving in the right direction, she said. Technological advancements are embraced in order to better manage the farm.

All of these habits won’t work, however, if dairy farmers aren’t also taking care of their own well-being. Mental health is important, but too often overlooked until things become unmanageable.

“Dairy farming can be lonely. There are days on end where things don’t go your way. There’s a lot of things you have to deal with on the day-to-day,” McCrea said. “Taking the time to take a break and recharge your battery and remember the important things in life helps you to be able to deal with all those other issues better.”