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Hold the line: Make better decisions in stressful situations

Chris Canale for Progressive Dairyman Published on 19 July 2017

During stressful times, it’s easy to let emotions overtake rational thinking – which can lead to poor decision-making. Throughout my nearly 25-year career, I’ve seen U.S. dairy producers feel the stress of volatile markets, increasing regulation and consumer demands.

During these stressful times, I’ve watched producers and herd advisers, including myself, make decisions in ways they typically wouldn’t had they not been under mounting pressure.



Today, I give producers three tips to help ensure they “hold the line” when it comes to making and evaluating decisions that will have long-lasting impact on their operations, specifically as it relates to their feeding programs.

1. Utilize a systematic review approach

Have a disciplined approach to decision-making. Review the science first. Second, determine if the science fits the situation on the farm – meaning, is there an interaction with feed or management that will impact the way the science impacts the cow?

Write out all pros and cons and discuss with members of the dairy team. Make sure you always follow the same approach to help limit gut-reaction decision-making.

For example, if you’re faced with corn silage low in starch or fiber digestibility, you’ve got to assess alternatives. Do you replace, remove or continue with that inferior nutrient source? Potentially, there are several feed options to choose from. Assessing the entire situation – ration, management, days in milk, etc. – should add clarity to the feed choice best for the cow, and the business, at that time.


2. Detach yourself from the emotion

Removing the emotion from a decision can be very difficult, but it’s something that must be done. When our emotions take over, it can cloud our judgment and maybe lead to a poor decision. Following a systematic review can often help keep rational thinking at the forefront when emotions run high.

A nutritionist often sees problems associated with milk production repeat themselves, especially in a specific region. Poor-digestibility forage, mycotoxins and weather-related stress, as well as many other situations, impact cows on different farms in similar ways.

These situations can lead a nutritionist to possibly make the same conclusion, and subsequent action, on every farm. Losing milk revenue makes matters worse, which can cause someone to think, “It worked on one farm, so I’ll do the same thing here.”

However, we know each farm is different. Nutrients from forages and grains have the potential to act differently farm to farm and cow to cow. Searching for lost milk can be a time-consuming process.

We can’t be complacent; we can’t assume what worked on one farm will work on another, even if the factors are similar. We must separate the emotions of victory or disappointment from one scenario and look objectively at each unique situation to find the actions right for that specific farm.


We must also look objectively at the individuals involved in the process. Many dairy operations have family relationships that can entwine more emotions into a decision-making process. A systematic approach can go a long way in helping family members remain impartial and focused; we’ve all experienced times when family dynamics spark emotional confusion.

3. Evaluate the decision before, during and after you make it

Evaluate decisions, especially significant ones, to improve future decision-making. Don’t just evaluate the outcome, though; look back and assess your motivations. Did you make the decision for the right reasons? Assess your process.

Did you stick with your system or did something cause you to deviate? Confront emotions. Were sentiments or stress under control or heavily influencing you? By taking the time to evaluate these things, you will be better able to hold the line the next time you’re under pressure to make a significant decision.

We’ve all been there: Milk production is down, and we must make a ration change to fix it. No question, many times the change improves performance. And sometimes we make the changes in stages.

Either way, production or components improve. Unfortunately, we encounter ration failures as well. The process by which we review success and failure should be the same. We’ve got to stay objective. Ask yourself the same questions after each decision:

  • Did I put science first?

  • Did the science “fit” the cow?

  • Did the science impact the cow like it should have? If not, what interaction did I miss?

Under stress, it’s easy to panic. We never want to do harm, though, so we owe it to our cows and our businesses to take a more disciplined approach. Like it or not, our decisions affect cows and the bottom line. In just about all cases, I put science first. Why? It’s supposed to be repeatable.

Science cuts through the emotion. However, I recognize feeding cows is both art and science, so the role of experience is to tell us how and when to deploy science.  end mark

Dr. Chris Canale
  • Dr. Chris Canale

  • Dairy Technology Manager
  • Cargill U.S.
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