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Build your farm a management advisory team

Chuck Schwartau

Published in Dairy Star June 9, 2007

Dairy discussion group

A dairy discussion group considering the merits of a housing facility can help farmers make better decisions on their own farms.

Many dairy farmers today utilize a variety of consultants and advisors who provide current management information and advice leading toward decisions for the farm. It is always good to get ideas from outside the farm since those people bring a different perspective. They see things that don’t grab the farmer’s attention.

Some farmers have tapped another valuable resource for advice and as a sounding board for the farmer’s own ideas – other farmers in a dairy discussion group. There is tremendous value in learning from both the successes and the less than successful efforts of other similar farms.

Discussion groups are not a new concept, but they are an idea that could be used by more farms as dairy operators seek ways to sharpen their management skills and increase their profitability. Australia and New Zealand might be viewed as the ‘motherland’ of dairy discussion groups. Discussion groups have long been an important tool to those farmers because the participants pick each others’ brains and openly share what is happening on their farms. In 1995, Cary and Wilkinson (Journal of Extension, 33:6) reported 51% of the surveyed Australian and New Zealand farmers belonged to one or more discussion groups based on production systems or financial management.

In a 2005 report by the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, a young farm couple summed up the value of a group to them in this statement. “You can learn from like-minded farmers, improve knowledge, check input costs against other farmers, and compare prices…We’ve picked up things from others which would have taken us a lot longer to find our for ourselves.” (article – Secret Dairy Farmers’ Business)

David Grusenmeyer, Cornell University, lists several reasons for forming a discussion group. Among the common themes are gaining from the experiences of others in similar situations, having a group available for brainstorming, and the networking that happens in a consistent group. Grusenmeyer also offers other insights into discussion groups.

Discussion groups benefit from structured leadership. Free-flowing discussions sometimes lose track of their intended purpose. Grusenmeyer, the Australians and the New Zealanders all recommend an outside facilitator lead the discussions. A facilitator can see that everyone gets the opportunity to contribute to discussion and keep it on course.

If discussion groups are so valuable to farmers in another part of the world, what holds back our farmers from participation in similar groups? It might be trust.

Several years ago while on a study leave in Australia, I had the good fortune to attend a discussion group meeting at which each farmer received their annual financial and farm management analyses from the advisor. Not only did they each receive their own report, but they also had a summary of every farm in the group, and the reports were identified by name. Contrast that to our farm management groups where summary reports typically report averages and usually a top and bottom group. Those Australian farmers trusted each other enough to share their specific financial and management information with the group. That trust had to be earned, but it was highly valued.

The participants in that group were able to ask specific questions of each other about how they achieved given production levels or how they contained costs on their farms. This also provided benchmarks against which each farm could measure its own progress. Those farmers didn’t view each other as competitors, but rather as cooperators from whom each could learn something of value.

Not a lot of U.S. farmers are willing to be that open about their farm management and performance. They tend to be more secretive and almost view the neighbor as someone they need to out-produce rather than someone from whom they can learn. There are exceptions, but they aren’t real common here in Minnesota.

Think about it. What could you learn from other dairy operators in your region whose farms are similar to yours? They can probably learn something from you as well because each of you approaches similar problems in different ways.

If you are interested in exploring a dairy discussion group, contact a University of Minnesota Extension Dairy Team member and ask about forming one.

Forming a discussion group can take time, demands some organizational skills, and may even require a modest investment, but the potential benefits of having a well-qualified management team guide your farm decisions can be well worth it.

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