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Hey Dairy Industry: Are We Making Progress or Are We Just Circling the Wagons?

In the first quarter of each new year, one of the highlights we enjoy is the opportunity to take part in seminars, conferences and annual meetings that focus on the future of our dairy industry.

Murray and I had the opportunity to attend NDHIA Conference where I knew we would get to meet committed dairy people from all sectors of the industry. Recently, Murray has also enjoyed speaking at several meetings, and The Bullvine and Milk House platforms are filled with lively discussions of what is good, bad and ugly about the future. Canadian Dairy Expo is another source of information and inspiration.

NDHIA Repeats the Mantra – Connect. Collaborate. Be Credible.

At the National Dairy Herd Improvement Association AGM, Jay Mattison caught everyone’s attention with an oft-repeated mantra:   Connect!  Collaborate!  Be Credible!

We circled back to those words several times in meetings, hallways and conversations.

Murray spoke on “Leadership and Vision” in Mission Valley, San Diego and reframed and reiterated points from a Canadian presentation, “Another speaker who works providing services to dairy farmers showed statistics and examples and then said, “It’s not what a service is intended for, it is the on-farm results that matter.” That makes perfect sense.  If our dairy future is to sustainable, it has to achieve improvement.

Are we dawdling or doing?

 The very word “improvement” is a difficult concept for us.  We think we need to achieve perfect results in order to improve the dairy industry.  But perfection is not the problem.  What we really need to change is how to make the move from thinking about the many actions we take, to actually producing those results by taking action.

Achieving a goal is only a momentary change.  For instance, treating all sick calves …doesn’t deal with what is causing the calves to be sick.  Likewise, spending the time needed to document and treat that struggling pen of low producing cows, while it may earn a checkmark on a daily to-do list, more time and money will be spent as that pen fills again. Again focusing on the low end steals time and attention away from multiplying the positive inputs of healthy animals. We all recognize repetitive stress.  It is the repetitive part that needs to be dealt with and, hopefully, removed.  

Can you list a recurring incident of management, environment or genetics that is causing this kind of problem in your herd? Margins are too narrow for dawdling.

From Recording Symptoms to Addressing Causes

Dairy success has to concentrate on moving away from dealing with treating the symptoms to addressing the causes. It makes no sense to restrict success to one scenario when there are many paths to dairy success.  

Three recognized options are

  1. Selling surplus animals or product
  2. Selling zero profit animals
  3. Outsourcing services
  4. Forming new partnerships that are a win-win-win for all sides
  5. Seek out agri-tourism that is based on skills that are already available. (tours; baking; seminars;)

Progress is about progression.  Logical forward growth. We have to move from symptoms to solutions. 

The UP and Down Trajectory.  Which are you following?

Regardless of where you fit in the big picture of North American Dairy farming, there is one thing we can all agree 100% upon.  Dairy Data needs to find a new upward trajectory.

However, this rising line can’t be drawn, if the data points are not recorded.  We can no longer wait for data points with too much time lapsing in between. Is the goal a single report of 100% or a continuous upward trajectory of improved results recorded in real daily working time?

If you want to predict where your dairy will end up, all you have to do is follow the curve of tiny gains and losses.  See how your daily choices compound down the line.

2020 Vision

Twelve months from now we will succeed or fail based on what steps we actually took based on our 2019 visioning. The dairy industry is changing – farm to farm, family to family, organization to organization … It’s not changing month to month but day to day. As meetings, reports, slides and statistics are highlighting reports of farm sales, severe depression, and regrettably rising numbers of mental and physical health issues. There is no single right way that will be effective. It could be that your dairy is trying to change – health, money productivity, relationships or all of them. Not all at once. Not 100%. One step at a time.

It’s Better to be Slow than to be Stopped

Accomplishing one extra task is a small feat on any given day. Repeating and adding to it on a daily basis adds up to a significant change when accumulated over a dairy year. Small changes don’t appear to make any, or enough difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance.

In the early stages of change, you expect to make progress ina linear fashion, and it’s frustrating how ineffective changes seem to be during the first few days, week and even months.  It doesn’t feel like you are going anywhere.  But gradually you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance.  Improvement is achieved!

Unfortunately, the early temptation is to slip back into the crowd. There seems to be temporary security in numbers.  But change doesn’t wait to be put on our agenda.  Change can’t be bullied into moving at a pace that we find acceptable.

We become experts at managing the status quo.

Unfortunately, there are at least three things that go wrong when you stay stuck:

  1. Decisions take longer to make and are no long guided by reality. As your company grows you strive to have staff carry out increasingly specialized tasks, but, if they must run everything by you as they did in the past, it drags out decision-making and leads to missed opportunities that require swift action.
  2. Risk and investment are avoided, stifling growth. Your dairy is probably long past the new business stage. If you maintain the same cash-obsessed, risk-averse, reactive mindset that helped you get started, you probably won’t invest time and resources in dairy endeavours that will yield a return down the road.
  3. Innovation becomes impossible when you approach decision-making with a “this is the way we’ve always done it” attitude. When you don’t allow yourself or your staff to experiment with new ideas, your dairy stagnates, making it harder to keep up with the competition or to adapt to new dairy market challenges.

Change doesn’t wait to be put on our agenda.  Change can’t be bullied or managed into moving at a pace that we find acceptable.

Take Advantage of the Resources Around You

Whenever you’re in meeting rooms, there are tremendous to tap into to make dairy improvement happen in the real world of 2019.  It takes questioning, listening and a willingness to entertain new and different approaches. So much potential to be unlocked. Choose! Don’t snooze or you’ll lose. While science supports genetics, genomics and nutrition, ultimately success can only come through the day to day actions and choices made on each dairy operation. We can pare back.  We can eliminate.  But there inevitably comes a time when that is no longer possible. At some point, we have to increase the profitability.  Not higher numbers of cattle.  But more efficiently productive cattle.


It starts with understanding the changes that are needed, investing in them and, most important of all, taking action. The fields represented have been around for many years. What is needed is a synthesis of the best ideas, successful dairy farmers, scientists and associations figured out a long time ago … combined with the compelling discoveries being made recently. 

When you repeatedly solve problems by targeting maintenance of your current levels, you can only solve the problem caused by your current system. There is no forward progress.

We need to get all of the inputs – nutrition, genetics, feed, environment- pulling together in the same direction so that the outputs provide solutions.

Same Old. Same Old. Yeah BUT.

Many times we keep talking about the same scenarios: “If you lose 300$ on each calf, you raise – you are fighting a war with yourself.  Your decisions are your own worst enemy.  You have seen slide after slide showing the statistics. You have watched and listened as the current reality was spoken. If the current trajectory is maintained the end is approaching.

I wondered to myself, how many others were having my “yeah but” moment.  “Yeah what he or she says is true for some, BUT I am not in the group” because I don’t do genomics. I love the lifestyle. Or I just bought a ticket to win the lottery.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

There is no end day when everything will return to the way it was once before.

There is no end day when we can stop working hard. 

The target isn’t about achieving a final end game. It is about initiating the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. 

From where I sit, DHIA President George Cudoc sums it up best.  I agree with his thinking that it isn’t the writers, the speakers, the slides, the awards and the statistics that make the difference.  Any one or all of these may give you a reason to be inspired or overwhelmed and decide to keep your own counsel.  It’s just words and information. There isn’t any impact until that information finds it’s way into the action plan of your workday.

Countless moderators, managers, mentors and dairy peers are encouraging everyone to take that information forward.  Use it.  Don’t keep circling the wagons.  Move forward.  Collect!  Collaborate. Be Incredible!




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