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Extension > Agriculture > Dairy Extension > Farm life > Are you a “looking up” or “looking down” manager?

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Are you a “looking up” or “looking down” manager?

Chuck Schwartau

Published in Dairy Star September 17, 2010

I'm a fan of home improvement programs on public TV. A program earlier this year featured a company that builds post and beam framed houses. The program host was visiting with the construction company president while they watched a construction crew at work.

The president made the comment, "We want our foremen looking up, not down." He wasn't just referring to watching what might be coming at you overhead, though. He went on to explain that if his foremen were spending too much time looking down at nails they were pounding, they might be missing other things about the job that would affect the quality or integrity of the final product. He wanted his foremen observing and continually analyzing the work the crew was doing to be sure the end product met their high standards; not just pounding nails like the carpenters. He wants his foremen to be performing tasks that have a higher level of importance to the final product.

It occurred to me that same concept applies to dairy farms striving to achieve high standards of milk quality, production and profitability. The farm owner and key managers need to devote adequate time to the details that make the system work well. This doesn't come easy on a lot of farms.

Be a “looking up” manager who is always looking to achieve high standards of milk quality, production and profitability for the good of the entire business.

Everyone is trying to get as much work done on the farm as possible while keeping labor costs as low as possible. That often means the owner or manager is performing relatively menial tasks that may be important but aren't tasks that require their high management skills. Controlling labor costs is an important function, but if doing so means key people don't have time to really be managers, it might be a false saving.

If you as the owner or a key manager is spending a good deal of time scraping barns or mixing feed so you can hire less help, who is checking on feed prices, selecting appropriate bulls, or entering health information into the record system so it is current and ready for the next herd health check? Probably, no one is doing it. There is not a cash cost realized by those missed management tasks, but there are real costs just the same.

Financial decisions like milk marketing and feed contracting often have narrow windows of opportunity for the best prices. An owner or manager working in the barn rather than devoting specific time to the financial decisions is more likely to miss the opportunities when they occur. There is also that time necessary to observe the work of others on the farm and visit with them about the issues affecting their work. Training staff is important, too. These tasks help ensure quality work is done consistently on the farm. Without regular attention, routine tasks may experience something called ‘procedural slippage,’ when workers tend to let the quality of their work slip from its desired level.

It is common for farmers to define work as ‘physical labor'. If they haven't gotten dirty or worked up a sweat on the farm, they haven't accomplished anything in the day. An owner/manager's work should include (and focus on) making the right decisions. That person needs to develop the attitude that their work is extremely valuable to the success of the farm, and will often be done at a desk or on the computer. That is the JOB of the owner/manager. That means the person has to spend time researching the topic, analyzing data if necessary, making a decision, and then executing that decision. It should be part of that person's assigned responsibility to truly manage.

Too many owners and managers use ‘spare time' or evenings on management tasks. First of all, when was the last time a dairy farmer admitted they had any spare time? That often results in tasks being put off past their optimum time, or being worked on when the person is tired and less focused on the task. The best thinking is done and decisions made when the mind is fresh. Designate time early in the day for the tough management work. This should be time deliberately set aside for the important tasks that can save the farm money, or help it realize greater profits from better marketing.

So -- are you "looking down" by being a manager who is involved in all the daily labor-intensive tasks of the dairy farm, or are you a "looking up" manager who is looking out for the good of the entire business by making the time to carry out the management functions and truly manage?

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