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Are you leaving the gate open?

Allen Bonthuis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 04 November 2016

On a dairy, we sometimes think it is our life’s work to open and close gates. It can be so routine that we begin to overlook the importance of a good, well-latched gate. We have all seen that telltale sign of gate troubles. You know somewhere a gate was neglected when a fourth-lactation docile high-producing cow dances across the front yard of the barn like a bred heifer.

At that moment, the farm’s efforts turn to stopping the stream of cattle flooding into the great outdoors and securing the gate that led to the escape. It is absurd to think we might delay and allow the rest of the cattle to stream out, making matters worse, or ignore the problem as cattle walk off into the sunset.

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I use cows and gates as a metaphor: The cows are your potential wastes, and gates are the management tools used to control loss. In commodity production, our ability to be profitable often comes significantly from closing all the gates on the farm.

If you are a manager, it is your job to identify the gates, figure out how to close the gates and how to keep them closed. As a manager, you must make waste elimination a priority.

Identify the gate

First, not all losses are as obvious as that bovine ballerina, but there are many issues on the farms I visit that have failed to be addressed. There are also countless more that have failed to be revealed. In simplest terms, you need to look at all of the processes on the farm and look for alternatives, then compare alternatives financially to see if improvements can be made.

My first suggestion is to look at operations that involve feed and labor. As the highest costs on the farm, you will usually find waste and the largest negative cost impact in those areas.

Second, seek advice from consultants. Invite trusted industry people, salespeople or even other dairy farmers to frankly discuss their observations of your farm. Finally, create a culture where employees and other people that interact with the farm can feel comfortable bringing their opinions about how to eliminate waste to you.

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Smith Farms, a 350-cow dairy in Michigan, has been loading their mixer with a skid steer. The farm’s lender observed that other farms that size were feeding with larger machines and taking far less time to feed.

At the time, the dairyman was feeding for six hours a day. Thus began a search for waste. Were they being as efficient as possible with their current methods? Would other equipment make them more profitable?

How do you close the gate?

Once the cows escape, the entire farm goes into action to control the gate and get all of the cows back into the barn. When the cows are all back in the pen, we analyze the situation to see if it was human neglect, broken equipment or a crafty animal that caused the gate to be open. Then, finally, a decision is made to keep the cows in the pen in the future by dealing with the cause.

With an open gate, everyone knows the goal is to re-house the cows. Likewise, when waste is identified, there needs to be a stated goal. The goal will drive action just like it motivates the entire farm to help with the open gate.

Communicating the goal and the impact of the waste openly and loudly will elevate the elimination of waste as a priority. Furthermore, good solutions can come from employees, consultants and family members when they are aware of the need.

When you find an open gate, you have to figure out why it is open. Often, we might just want to fix a problem and move on, but there are reasons to spend some time analyzing why a problem exists.

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Knowing the root cause of the waste will help avoid the problem returning once it is fixed. Also, identifying the underlying reason why waste exists in some areas will begin to make spotting waste in other areas of the farm easier.

Now that we know the cause of the open gate, finding a solution will be more natural. Procedures and routines can be set up to begin the process of eliminating waste and thereby improving profitability. This step is usually a long process of monitoring and readjusting your actions in order to find a fix that works and reaches your goal.

Smith Farms tried several machines and found that a 2-yard loader was the most efficient for the farm, reducing the total feeding time to 2.5 hours. Labor savings amounted to $1,825 per month which, in reality, just got shifted to other parts of the farm, and machinery owning-and-operating costs were reduced by $2,380 a month.

Keeping the gate shut

Gates are held shut with chains, pins or latches. It is the failure of the chain that really leads to the loose cow. Once the gate is closed, there needs to be a mechanism to keep it closed. The mechanism should be visible and easily verified, measured and tracked.

The use of metrics is the best way to monitor trends, communicate progress to the team and ensure waste doesn’t return. Metric boards posted in common areas like break rooms communicate to the entire team the advance toward a goal.

Ideally, a metric should be on display, contain clearly what is being measured, a baseline of the goal and historical data about progress.

You will quickly notice the side effects of putting the goal and progress up for everyone to see. The greatest effect will be the accountability of the people responsible for reaching the goal. Additionally, you will see other team members want to lend a hand and come up with ideas on how to make advancements to the goal.

The owner of the farm and the feeder worked closely to understand that there is a goal on how long it should take to feed, and as the herd grows, they wanted to track that. They developed a metric of minutes per mature animal.

The goal was to keep this number below 30 seconds per cow. This number would likely grow as the herd grew with the current equipment, which would then signal that it is time to re-evaluate their methods.

Conclusion

Why is it that there are so many gates left open on the farm every day? The reasons for waste are innumerable, but there are a few common themes that show up in regards to why they aren’t dealt with.

Many times the solution is difficult to implement or measure. If the path to solutions and implementation isn’t clear, don’t let that stop you from addressing the waste.

Start out by identifying the waste with your team and consultants, and seek suggestions for how to address it. Just knowing about the waste could begin to reduce it. As quickly as you can, find a way to measure and track the waste, and solutions will appear.

I don’t know who said, “Distraction is the enemy of action,” but it really covers my next point well. Farm management is often structured so a large part of a manager’s day is labor. It makes sense, as our love of farming is usually why we are on a dairy in the first place.

However, managers need to remember management is their first job. The identification and elimination of waste can be far more valuable than the labor of a single person. Managers should be taking the time to analyze each part of the operation and avoid being distracted from it.

Profitability is the difference between cost and sales. We often don’t have much control over this difference, but businesses can manage the waste of what is left over. Let’s keep the gates on the farm shut and locked.  end mark

Allen Bonthuis
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