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Don’t Let Ageism Kill The Dairy Industry?

“It’s Not Too Late to Capitalize on Dairy’s Biggest Asset!”

Economics, politics and poor business decisions are the excuses we give when dairy dollars are going down the drain.  At least, those are the things we blame. However, even without playing the blame game, we feel justified in forecasting a dire future for dairying.  We think it can’t be helped.

            Unfortunately, with all our knowledge, data and assessment processes, we are turning a blind eye to the biggest asset that we have available to us.  Without a doubt, that asset is the next generation of young dairy entrepreneurs.

            We can’t have a future dairy industry, without the input of young dairy people.


            When we look around, there is much to be excited about concerning young people.  Even though their positive stories rarely lead the news, there are many great successes in science, technology, sports and creativity that deserve glowing praise. For example, the Junior who bred the national champion cow or the college junior who created an app that monitors calf health. However, more often than not, these achievements, unlike murder, scandals and political mayhem don’t lead the news but are usually left for a single good news bit at the end of the broadcast, following the weather and after the final buy-our-product ad. And, if they relate to agriculture, they may not be included at all. Thus it is that the first things you’re apt to hear about younger folks in general conversation are complaints about them burying their heads in technology.


            Let’s be honest here and forget the ageism.  It isn’t only the younger generations who are burying their heads in technology. It’s all generations.  I am a senior and, although the specific tech uses may be different, many of my peers are rarely seen without their grey-heads buried in their smartphones.  When was the last time you were in a seniors group, coffee shop or grocery store and overheard one side of a cell phone conversation?  

            While we seniors profess not to be addicted, we often lead conversations with “I read on Google…” or “I saw it on Pinterest.” Confirmation proof is easily found. Recent national data (PEW Research Center June 2019) reveals that Americans are more digitally connected than ever before. It reports that approximately 70% of seniors are now connected to the internet and use devices to stay informed, connect with friends and family, shop, choose travel plans and make reservations for transportation and, not surprisingly, to read the latest news. Most dairy farmers are familiar with digital uses that provide data information for their dairy herd from health, to recording, to feed and employee management. The time for negative finger-pointing from one generation to another is hypocritical.


            “TOO YOUNG TO KNOW ENOUGH.” 

            “TOO OLD TO LEARN MORE”

Not everyone in the dairy industry has grown up in the fast-paced, hyper-connected digital world that those under forty years of age have experienced. Having done so, this age group that has developed the ability to quickly cut through the extraneous noise of repetitive explanations, rationalizations and criticism.  Whatever the label, Generation X, Generation Y or Generation Z, by and large, they are focused on what they want when it comes to work and education they expect interaction to be at their fingertips. If the dairy industry is to remain viable and valuable, it has to accept that digital is here to stay.  Adapting to that reality is going to be the key. 

            Traditional education and the ways we move through dairy processes must be enhanced by technology not held back by the way we did it in the past. Hands-on experience and practical skills can’t be taught by osmosis.  While we argue over whose heads are where, education programs – on farms, in colleges, or through industry – are missing out on the practical internships that could grow the dairy industry.

            Everyone on the modern dairy farm has to be open to learning from the cows and about the cows.  That goes without saying.  We have to be open to working with cutting edge technology.  The sources of knowledge are expanding.  We can’t hoard information from our competition, and we definitely can’t keep it from those whom we must entrust with our future. Peers.  We must open up to unlimited access from the largest educational institutions to the smallest device in our hands. Online e-learning about everything from reproduction to genomics to profitable dairy strategies is the only way to keep up and remain relevant.


            Most non-agricultural industries – medical, computer, engineering – advance as the knowledgebase and practical instruction are passed down to the next group of industry professionals. But when we talk about entrepreneurship in the dairy industry, whom do we name as those who are actually leading and guiding the next dairy-producing generation? Are academic institutions keeping pace with the changing realities?  Did they ever?

            We, as a dairy industry, are justifiably proud of our dairy farm offspring for their work ethic and understanding of the dairy business. It is a great foundation.  But are we confident enough to urge them to make dairy their ultimate career path?  And if that is the ultimate goal, have they received enough training? Training of the right kind?  Are they equipped for what they have to face in the years ahead?

            In the not-so-distant past, dairy breeders grew their businesses through careful breeding, bull selection, and buying and selling to a discriminating market. Over the last twenty years, this has changed dramatically. The economics of modern dairy breeding has made it difficult for an individual breeder to breed an influential sire, thus all but closing down this income source.  The economics of a profitable dairy herd turns not only on “cow knowledge” but also on “cow science” and when a dairy entrepreneur overemphasizes one at the expense of another, it has a dramatic impact on dairy profitability.


            We can’t have a dairy future without people experienced enough to run dairy farms. Instead of whining about the downfalls of the next generation, we need to engage with them. We need to be open about the downside of dairy entrepreneurship.  It can be hard, thankless humbling, lonely, and a precarious career choice.  It requires focus and a long term outlook coupled with a commitment to sacrifice.  Ask yourself: “Does that sound like the career you signed up for 20, 30 or 40 years ago?” We must face the fact that future success is not guaranteed.  Share what you have learned about personal freedoms, work-life balance and the risks and rewards of being a dairy entrepreneur.

            When we started in dairying, more than likely, people spoke to us in terms we understood.  We had a vision for what we thought we were facing. Does anyone talk to today’s young dairy hopefuls about being an entrepreneur on their terms?

            Like the other, more traditional professions, we need to aggressively advance our areas of education and training in entrepreneurialism.  Andrew Bachelor a social media influencer and entrepreneur was told by a college professor, “The job you will have ten years from now doesn’t exist today.”  How do we apply that vision to the dairy industry?  “The dairy farm you will have ten years from now doesn’t exist today.” Entrepreneurs in most thriving industries are not born and bred into their positions. We apply the word entitled to the younger generation but aren’t we the living examples of entitlement? We are if we expect to maintain the status quo at the expense of evolving to meet the needs of a changing world and a changing customer.


            And this brings me one more message for older dairy entrepreneurs. You can never overshare your experience.  Share how you learned.  Share how you built your dairy from what it was when you started to what it is today.  While the methods and motivations may be somewhat different, all ages can relate to the passion and will to succeed.  All ages need to be ready to try new things if we want to get from where we are to where we want to be. We need to find a way to combine the cutting edge of technology that will keep us up with new ideas with the steadying business experience that years in the dairy industry provides. When both groups work together, the entire dairy industry benefits.

            Something great doesn’t happen without problems, near misses and even failures. We can’t avoid these hurdles, but they only become full failures when we allow them to become full stops. Instead of hauling out the criticism, we need to praise the doers. Cheer the attempts. Analyze and offer concrete suggestions.

THE FUTURE BUILDERS                         

            All generations need to recognize that the future success of dairying will be built on giving each other – young and old – the opportunity to try … and to fail. All of us have had experience with difficulties.  If someone hadn’t had our backs, we wouldn’t be where we are today. We tend to let the years shine a rosy glow onto everything.  We can’t change the past, but we can accept where we are.  We can hand off to those willing to continue on. The foundation for the future will be built on great dairy cattle and dairy people, of all ages.


We can be justifiably proud of our dairy history even as we recognize that the way forward will hold new issues, challenges and opportunities. We must take big risks if we would reap bigger rewards. The time has come to start something new with people who will stop at nothing to achieve it. Together.




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