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HERd management: Six truths herd managers should know

Kelli Woodring Published on 10 June 2013

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I never thought that I would be where I am right now. I knew I would be here. I have always known.

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As a little girl, I dreamed of walking into a barn full of cows every day and smiling ear to ear because I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.

To this day, it has never stopped being a roller coaster ride of joy and disappointment. I started working at Cedar Pine Farm in 2011, right out of high school. I was young and inexperienced, but I was willing to learn.

It has been two years of insanity, to be honest with you. How do you manage cows and still have time to manage yourself? I have yet to find an answer to that question, but you learn to adjust.

There have been many days when my job seemed impossible. I am sure any herdsperson can understand the feeling. It can be a daunting task sometimes, trying to fix every problem and be a hundred places at once.

You never know what your day could involve because it feels as if you are waiting for problems to occur so you can solve them.

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Not only do the cows depend on a herdsperson, the employees do also. I have not been blessed with the talent of reprimanding others. What I do is listen to concerns and problems and try to find solutions.

I try to be patient and understanding most of the time. It is tough though when sometimes you just want to scream.

Obviously, even after two years, I struggle. I am still young and still learning. There can be respect issues sometimes. If someone five years younger than you starts a new job and tries to tell you what to do, there will likely be difficulties.

They are all adapting to a different style of management, and to add to it, I am the only woman on the team. So when I want something done my way, it is not because I am bossy or picky, and I commend the patience of everyone who is adjusting with me.

There are days where I lose my temper – days I would like to forget. Then there are moments I will always remember. After two unsuccessful days at A.I. school, I returned to the farm unable to breed cows.

Instead of accepting defeat, my boss threw me in with the cows and told me to keep trying. Two cows later, something clicked in my mind, and I was able to breed that cow.

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I jumped up and down like a lunatic, laughing like a child. I was just too proud of myself to hold back my excitement. I knew everyone thought I was crazy (and I probably am), but that was a huge accomplishment for me.

The hardest part of my job is attempting to find a balance. Too often, you find yourself putting cows before yourself. It is beyond late nights in the calving pen or that emergency call that the cows are on the road.

Some people do not understand the dedication involved. The second you accept a herdsperson position is the second you give up your life for a group of cows. (Better be certain you are ready for that.)

If I could offer advice to anyone contemplating this as a job choice or who already does this every day, I would say:

1. Know what you are getting into. I would never try to talk someone out of it – but simply understand the task. It will be challenging, frustrating and tiring. You may go insane.

Or you may just end up satisfied because I have not experienced another job that completely exhausts you and motivates you at the same time. Those cows are the reason I drag myself out of bed at sunrise; they depend on me.

2. Never let someone tell you that you cannot do something because you are young. I have met many adults who still have no idea what they are doing. Just make sure you never stop learning and trying to get better every day.

3. Ask for advice from other farmers. I have met many people who taught me so much – and some people who taught me what not to do.

Not every person you meet wants to help you, but at least you can learn from them, even if you are simply thinking: I will never do that.

4. I still believe it takes the heart of a child to do this job. You have to want to save anything you lay your eyes on but still realize it is an impossible dream.

You have to take baby steps and learn as you go. Sometimes you will screw up and sometimes you will save a life. And that is what makes it all worth it.

5. Start every task knowing you will finish it. Whether it is walking a healthy cow back into the barn or closing her eyes as you put her to rest, do your job knowing you did everything in your power to save that cow. If you can do that, you can sleep easy.

6. Love what you do, and if you do not, then quit. Life is too short to do something that does not make you happy.

Not everyone will always know what they want to do. I was blessed at a young age to realize my passion. I do not have trouble admitting that cows make me happy. I am proud to say I am a dairy farmer. I do not know for sure where I will be 10 years from now.

That is the trouble with the dairy industry; it is unpredictable. What I do know is I will walk into a barn full of cows every day and smile ear to ear because I am doing exactly what I should be doing – and nothing could make me happier. PD

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Kelli Woodring
Dairy Producer
Shippensburg, Pennsylvania

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