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Building teamwork on dairy farms

Progressive Dairy Editor Walt Cooley Published on 31 March 2021
Moving a piano

Don’t just cover a pile, fix a pipe or milk cows – build teamwork.

Ever wonder how teamwork and trust are built? Turns out dairy farms have some of the right ingredients, if mixed just right.

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After studying how Navy SEAL teams train, one author found that three key ingredients for developing teamwork are sweat, working in close proximity to each other and a focus on team over self.

In his book The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle quotes Navy SEAL Commander Tom Freeman and his thoughts on the importance of “microevents” in the process of building a team. “We’re all about the microevent. Every evolution is a lens to look for teamwork moments, and we believe that if you stitch together a lot of opportunities, you start to know who the good teammates will be,” Freeman said.

Many of the types of microevents Navy SEALs train in happen naturally in agriculture: long days, carrying heavy loads, working in sweaty conditions, problem solving. I can think of several examples you too might have experienced that could be opportunities to build trust, if you seize the moment correctly.

First, think of a time when you were elbow deep in mud and fishing in dirt soup to find out how big the leak in a buried mainline was. Then, remember the next few days after the hole dried out and you’re standing around it looking at a problem to fix. Maybe you replaced it all by yourself, but more than likely you had some help. Did you treat it as a teamwork exercise?

I’m not suggesting you take turns trust-falling backward into that muddy hole, but when you’re down there in it, or standing around it, be talking to those there with you. Even if you’re the seasoned veteran who has done this more than once and know what to do, ask those with you what you think should be done to achieve a fix. Navy SEALs call this “working the problem.” If you observe them in action, you’ll hear multiple members of the team giving their assessment and potential solutions. They talk through what is suggested, each member taking a turn. They respect each other’s comments, even if they disagree. Communication in the heat of the moment says a lot about a team.

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Ever watch those reality TV shows where they put teams in difficult situations, and they have to communicate and coordinate a plan to get out of it? That’s a microevent. I bet you’ll find successful teams can work the problem without resorting to name-calling.

Next, think of the time each year when a silage bunker is full and packed and it’s time to cover it up. A small army is required to pull plastic and throw tires. It’s hard work and requires a coordinated effort. As if this wasn’t hard enough, this task happens at the end of some long days and nights of harvesting crop. I know it might sound weird, but huddle your group together just like a football team before you start the task. Beginning the effort in close proximity to each other will psychologically trigger that this is a team-building exercise as much as it is a chore.

Furthermore, I can’t think of a more exact team-building environment than sorting cattle. The chutes and pens make for tight working quarters. There’s a natural “us versus them” (the cattle) competition to the day. Add dirt and for sure sweaty conditions, and the task can build a stronger team.

Lastly, when your team can’t work in close proximity to each other, make sure you celebrate close together afterwards. I once experienced a multi-day hoof trimming event on a 10,000-cow dairy, where all the cows were trimmed by multiple trimmers within the same week. Each trimmer in the group had his own workstation and wasn’t often communicating with the other trimmers during work, but at lunch and nighttime, the group gathered in the small farmhouse to recharge and connect. The trimmers who would come year after year said the teamwork and camaraderie they felt during the week was the reason they came back every year.

The next time you have to squeeze three in the front seat of a pickup to head out to a job, or have some heavy lifting to do, make sure you make the most of the moment: Communicate and focus on team and task over self. The conditions of ag work will naturally build some trust, if you approach it with this mindset. Your team will then be developing just like the U.S. Navy’s elite tactical units do. end mark

PHOTO: Sweat, close proximity and “team over self” were all elements of this piano-moving event with colleagues. Photo provided by Walt Cooley.

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“Hey, Walt! What’s your recent team-building exercise?”

Six men. One piano. Two dozen stairs.

The idea for this column came to me while three of my colleagues and I were leaning into an 800-pound piano to keep it from falling backward down a flight of stairs. The piano was new to one of our work colleagues, and she asked for help moving it up a flight of stairs to an upstairs bedroom. We got the piano on the stairs but then realized there wasn’t enough clearance on either side of the piano to move it effectively any further up. For a half hour, four of us leaned into the 800-pound piano while it was perched on the stairs, working out a solution to our problem.

While we were in each other’s armpits and sweating shoulder to shoulder, I realized we were in a team-building moment. There were only a couple inches of clearance on each side of the piano, so we felt like we were pushing a giant boulder up a steep mountain. Straining as we “worked the problem,” we talked about options. Everyone threw in his two bits about how to get it done. We even used a phone-a-friend lifeline. Within an hour, and with the help of some forearm forklifts, we had that piano upstairs, where the owner of it now says it will stay if she ever moves. Whew! We celebrated with a cold drink after it was over. The microevent was an exercise in task over self. I’d like to think we built some teamwork that day.

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