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Make a habit of improvement on the farm

Vince Crary

Published in Dairy Star September 8, 2007

Woman buckling seat belt

The habit of fastening your seat belt can save your life. Similarly, developing habits that support and maintain good production practices on your farm can save time and money.

Over the past three years, dairy farmers and other dairy professionals around Minnesota have been working to improve the quality of management on dairy farms. This dairy management project has been built around a program called Dairy OnTime. The primary focus of the project has been to increase consistency of performance on dairy farms by eliminating errors or defects in the processes on a daily basis. These are eliminated by adopting good practices and making them habits on the farm.

Many people have written about habits, but one commonly accepted notion is that something becomes a habit when you don't have to think about doing it. It becomes an ingrained part of your action and happens almost automatically. For example, because calf feeding utensils are breeding grounds for organisms that cause calf diseases, thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting all calf feeding utensils after every use should be a management practice ingrained into the routine of the calf feeder's duties.

The noted Horace Mann made this observation about habits: “Habit is a cable; we weave a thread each day, and at last we cannot break it.” What Mann is telling us is that habits don't just appear or happen, they have to be built and developed a little bit at a time.

Steve Pavlina, a writer and speaker on personal development, offers some interesting ideas on changing one's habits. He recognized the difficulty of establishing habits, especially desirable ones, and offers a new approach to forming them. Pavlina plays on the very familiar “free 30-day trial” phrase. How often have you seen an ad or perhaps even bought an item with a 30-day money back guarantee that goes something like this: “Try the product out for 30 days and if you aren't satisfied, your money will be cheerfully refunded.” The seller knows very well that by the time you have used something for 30 days you will either like it very much, or have adapted to it so you will accept the product and not return it. Or if you were offered a trial version of a software package for a free 30-day test, at the end of that time you are hooked enough to buy the full-blown software.

Pavlina suggests you commit yourself to a 30-day trial toward developing a habit. It takes a bit of discipline, but determine the practice you want to adopt and tell yourself you are going to try it for 30 days. This concept puts a more easily measured constraint on the program. Making a habit of something that will last forever sounds like an insurmountable task. However, if you tell yourself or your staff that you are going to try a particular practice for just 30 days and actually count off the days, it feels different. At the end of 30 days, you are free to keep the habit or drop it. More often than not, the habit will be retained. If people followed the practice, they became familiar enough with it that they can continue with little extra effort.

If, by any chance, you do decide the practice is one you don't retain, at least you gave it enough of a trial to make an informed decision. Either way, you should be a winner.

Dairy OnTime employs several different tools that help farms develop good practices, monitor progress toward their full adoption and measure progress in the farm business because of good practices. During this 3-year program, about two dozen farms have participated directly in the Dairy OnTime so far, and probably as many more dairies have benefited because of the training their advisors have received while participating in the project.

Extension educators and farm business management advisors of MnSCU have been learning, along with the dairy farmers, how to do a better job of organizing on the farm and managing for “zero defects.” The next step for these educators is to extend this project to many more families around the state.

If you'd like to learn more about the Dairy OnTime project and how you might become involved, contact Chuck Schwartau, regional extension educator, at 507-536-6301 or by e-mail at I will put you in contact with the nearest educator familiar with the project.

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