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Panelists outline dairy discussion group practices

Laura Holtzinger for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 March 2019
Dr. Bob Fry at Dairy Summit

Although they may take on various forms, dairy discussion groups involve individuals with common interests who gather to exchange information and ideas, compare methods and support one other. Grants offered through Pennsylvania’s Center for Dairy Excellence (CDE) help fund dairy discussion groups throughout the state.

Producers take ownership of the groups and are assisted by industry specialists whose goals include strengthening individual dairy operations and the dairy industry.

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Three dairy veterinarians described their roles as facilitators for discussion groups, and the purposes and benefits of their groups, at the 2019 Pennsylvania Dairy Summit, held Feb. 5-6 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Panel participants were Dr. Robert Fry, Dr. Charles Gardner and Dr. Cory Meyers.

Fry began the Atlantic Dairy Consulting bovine veterinary practice on the Delmarva Peninsula in 1977, where he still practices. He concentrates on dairy cattle production, nutrition and health. Additionally, he provides dairy nutritional consulting services in the northeast U.S.

Gardner no longer practices but spends his retirement still focused on animal health and herd management and economics. “I turned 50 and worked for AgWay, then Cargill, and now part time for the Center for Dairy Excellence as the dairy transition coordinator,” he said.

Meyers has spent his career with Mid-Maryland Dairy Veterinarians, specializing in dairy farm management and transition cows. He grew up on his family dairy farm, Meyers Brothers Dairy, in Franklin County, and serves as a board member for the CDE.

Each panelist provided information about the functions and advantages of discussion groups.

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What were your considerations when creating the discussion group?

FRY: Facilitating a dairy discussion group is an opportunity for me to offer a value-added service, to learn from others and to engage industry leaders. I approached producers whom I believed had similar priorities, management ability and technologies. The group includes 12 producers from a wide geographical range. Trust is a big factor. Cost of production can be difficult to talk about, but having trust and confidentiality guidelines helps.

GARDNER: I cherry-picked 10 farms from Berks, Lancaster and Lebanon counties, based on personalities, positivity and eagerness to improve. Seven accepted. They all are interested in how they can get better, and they range in herd size and structure.

MEYERS: The group consists of the practice’s clients and producers whom AgChoice referred. It’s a diverse group, ranging from producers with 60 to 800 cows, with production differences. They identify topics and encourage each other. There are 18 to 20 members, with a core eight consistently attending.

What are the elements and guidelines of the meetings?

FRY: We’ve been meeting since 2006, three to four times a year, usually at a member’s farm. There is an informal rotation for location. The host provides lunch. It is at least an all-day commitment.

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Co-facilitator Dr. Jeff Ainslie and I make an agenda for focus and structure. The agenda for the first meeting included introductions and each producer’s best and worst idea from the previous year. I ask them to bring information along so we can review production and performance numbers.

We tour and have a Q&A of the host farm. They debate, discuss, challenge. People open up, especially in the barn. Discussions are confidential (including herd data and performance metrics). There is no whining allowed. Popular focus topics include waste management, milk pricing, milk marketing, labor and production efficiency.

Except for an occasional closed meeting, guests are welcome by group member invitation. We decided on minimum influence by outside vendors. We have occasional social events and road trips, including to a plantation, winery and mushroom farm so far. It’s not always about cows. We also discuss future planning: When and where is the next meeting, and will we have an outside speaker?

GARDNER: We meet at host farms, three times a year – March, July and November. After an introduction, we walk around, usually seeing the calves, heifers, then milking facilities. It’s key to keep them moving. Then we have lunch at a local restaurant.

They evaluate each farm’s numbers: pounds and components, udder health numbers, cull numbers and age at first calving. They’re all superior herds, so there’s no embarrassment issue. I ask them to bring their yearly financials – there’s no pressure to share, but it can be helpful to compare. We say margins are more important than ratios.

There’s always a topic, and we always set a date for the next meeting. There haven’t been any outside speakers yet.

MEYERS: Since 2009, the group meets once a month from November to March, on the third Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m., and has pizza. It’s therapeutic, and there’s no whining. The goals are to reduce cost and improve efficiency and production. No one in the group has sold out yet. We allow outside sources and even saved producers a significant amount of money with a seed buying group; one saved $35 per bag with a seed order. If a group of farmers can compromise on seed corn, maybe there’s hope for Republicans and Democrats.

We found when veterinarians lectured, attendance dropped. Dairymen are more likely to listen to each other, so I became more of a facilitator and less of a lecturer.

Outside of the meetings, we mostly communicate via our Facebook page and group text.

How are the groups funded?

FRY: There is an administration fee of $175 per year. Self-funding triggers ownership.

GARDNER: I asked the CDE to sponsor me as a facilitator. They offer a grant for facilitators of $2,000 per year. This helps cover costs of travel and time invested.

MEYERS: All costs were covered by the CDE grants, AgChoice Farm Credit and Mid-Maryland Dairy Veterinarians.

What is other important rationale for your group’s success?

FRY: It’s their group, not mine. Having an enthusiastic facilitator is key. There must be energy and interest. Develop key performance indicators that are meaningful and comparable. Seek new ideas. Collect herd metrics that make the data tangible and keep everyone engaged. There are currently three generations of producers in the group.

GARDNER: They appreciate talking and learning from each other. The seven members have never missed a meeting.

MEYERS: It’s exciting and rewarding to watch clients instituting change, such as after we addressed benefits of having more bunk space.

The panelists clarified that, unlike a profit team, discussion groups are gatherings of peers. All three panelists said their groups have had few to no policy changes since their beginnings.

Two members of groups were present, and they commented on the effectiveness of discussion groups.

Josh Brubaker of Fry’s group said he and his father are both members. “Being young and having much to learn, I do a lot of listening,” he said.

Art Zug, a member of Dr. Jim Lawhead’s group in Millerstown, joked that he’s the opposite in that he mostly listens because he’s older.

“I’m impressed by the candidness of the farmers,” he said. “Everyone enjoys and benefits from the group.” Lawhead, like Gardner, utilizes the CDE’s facilitator grant.

A facilitator should be knowledgeable, comfortable leading, able to crunch numbers, committed to the time and effort required for the role and a people person. It is essential to remember it is a dairy producers’ group.  end mark

PHOTO: Dr. Bob Fry addresses the crowd at Pennsylvania Dairy Summit. Photo by Caroline Novak.

Laura Holtzinger is a freelance writer in Copake Falls, New York. She is also a co-owner of Linehan Jerseys.

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