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HERd management: Open your barn doors to gain perspective

Jennifer Heim Published on 06 November 2014

females on farm

I keep reading that we farmers need to open our barn doors to share the happenings of our operations with the public.

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In general, I agree; that’s why we share our story via social media. Our farm is personal, though; it’s our home. On social media, we feel safe. We have the ability to choose what to share and when to share it.

Inviting someone in to see whatever happens to occur is different; it’s vulnerable. Despite our best efforts, we know dairy life can be a bit unpredictable, and it’s not always pleasant.

That said, we always welcome friends and family to our farm and our home. This summer, we had the opportunity to host a few of my college friends on our farm.

My degree is in engineering, and most of my friends made during college do not have a strong connection to agriculture, if they have any at all. Each of the friends who visited had been to farms before but never to a dairy farm. I’d be lying if I said their visits didn’t make me nervous.

Our first visitors, Steve and Emilie, are new parents living and working in central Indiana. They came on Sunday, baby in tow, just as we were finishing morning chores. It was warm and the sun was shining.

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They were there during our farm’s downtime, if there is one, so after showing them around, we had plenty of time to enjoy the calves’ personalities and answer any questions they had. They asked specific questions about feed, breeding and fresh cow care. They also stayed for the start of evening milking to get the full experience.

After a little coaxing, Emilie even tried her hand at milking. One of my favorite moments was Emilie commenting that the cows seemed notably calm and content as they filed into the parlor. She saw what we see every day – that cows don’t mind being milked.

Our next visitor, Martin, a teacher in the Chicago suburbs, had a different experience. He arrived during milking wearing sandals and khaki shorts. It had just rained, and the flies were terrible. We got him a pair of boots, and he tried his best to not complain about the many smells that, while new to him, we failed to even notice.

He watched us put out feed for our cows and was in awe of the amount of feed each cow eats every day. He helped us bottle-feed calves and named the calf he fed, and he even stayed to witness my husband breeding a few cows. He was very interested in the logistics of the operation, and he really soaked everything in.

To each of our guests, we were able to explain the many factors we consider in our feed and housing choices, our daily activities and the improvements we hope to make. Despite different backgrounds, occupations and places in life, their responses were similar.

First, they were surprised at the number and variety of different tasks we’re responsible for every single day, and next they were amazed at how generic and normal each of these things was to us. To them, these tasks were in some cases strange, but in all cases interesting. As a person who, not all that long ago, did not have a dairy background, it was eye-opening how quickly and dramatically my perception has changed.

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Our guests all left vowing to come back and generally declaring that every person should be required to spend some time on a farm. I know from other friends that they have shared about their visits too. I think if nothing else, they gained some perspective of what really goes into milk production (it’s a little more than milk machines), and hopefully they have been able to pass some of that perspective on to others.

I think what impressed me the most about these visits, though, isn’t how much our guests learned, but how much I learned. To us, our daily tasks are normal, even mundane. The questions our friends asked and the specific things they noted offered a lot of insight into where our customers’ understanding is and, more importantly, where it isn’t.

As friends, our guests were open about what was surprising or somewhat uncomfortable to them, and they were sincere in their appreciation for the experience. The visits for us were a great reminder that, in spite of our passion for it, dairy farming can become monotonous – but to a fresh perspective, it is exciting and interesting.

I don’t know if every person needs to see our farm, but for every person who can, who knows how many others they might reach? If you haven’t, I encourage you to open your barn doors, even if it’s just a crack, and invite someone in. I know both host and guest will be bettered by the experience. PD

  • Jennifer Helm

  • Dairy Producer and Engineer
  • Easton, Kansas

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