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Selecting an advisory team for your dairy

Stephen B. Blezinger for Progressive Dairyman Published on 04 November 2016

Most dairies have various individuals who owners and managers can go to for advice in the many areas of management and operational matters. Often, this is informal and includes those individuals having some level of input on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.

This might include the veterinarian, banker, nutritionist, feed salesman, animal health product sales rep, chemical sales person and so on.

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The point is: Every farm has an advisory body, whether structured or not. It can be of benefit to the dairy producer to organize the group to some degree, if for no other reason than to structure the interaction with these individuals and facilitate communication between them. This can give them a better feel for the role the others play on the dairy and how to best work with them.

Perhaps more important than having an organized group is selecting the right individuals for the many areas of farm management where the producer may need input. Let’s discuss some of these and outline what to look for when assembling an advisory team.

This list can be extensive, and the actual make-up of the team will vary from farm to farm. A dairy’s advisory team can include any combination of the following.

Accountant

An accountant can be a core member of the farm’s advisory team. In many cases, the producer or an employee may be tasked with “keeping the books and paying the bills.” An accountant can help with oversight as well as play a variety of roles in handling all things financial on the farm.

A big part of this includes keeping payables current and servicing and retiring debt as expediently as possible. Then taxes come into play. Having an accountant experienced with the dairy business and related tax laws is critical to submitting and paying income taxes correctly.

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Agronomist

Any farm that produces its own feed ingredients (crops, grains or forages) may benefit from working with an agronomist. These individuals are experienced and trained in areas of crop and plant production. The agronomist can provide the producer with guidance concerning crop variety and management practices that can improve yields, nutrient density, digestibility and overall quality.

Often, the crops are what the dairy (and its nutritionist) have to work with for an entire year, possibly more.

The producer may have different types of agronomists to select from. Some agronomists may work for different seed companies. These individuals are required to promote varieties their company sells and will be limited in what they can recommend. Their service comes with the purchase of their product.

Independent agronomists are consultants the farm hires directly and are paid consulting fees. These folks should be more unbiased since they should not be receiving any compensation for recommending a given brand of seed or variety. Their focus should be what is best for the farm.

A final agronomist type might be an extension specialist. In many cases, these people may or may not be local and thus may not have complete awareness of specific conditions in the farm’s area. These individuals are paid by the extension service and so come at little or no cost.

Regardless of which type is used, that individual should be well educated and trained, experienced and come with good references. Above all, they need to be someone the producer feels comfortable with and who meets the producer’s needs.

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Banker

In this day and age, with credit being critical to basic operation for most dairies, having a good, experienced banker is extremely important. Any-size dairy is a multi-million dollar operation. Having a banker and his or her corresponding banking institution that is experienced and very familiar with how a dairy functions and cash flows may be the most important partnership a dairy has.

The banker should be able to provide input in a variety of areas outside of simply lending money. Other areas of input can and should include risk management, loan and line of credit configuration, financial analyses and so on.

Breeding technician

If the dairy uses a semen or breeding company or service, a breeding technician is generally provided as the service with the sales. In other cases, independent breeders may be available to work with the farm for a fee. These individuals can assist the producer more closely in monitoring the breeding activities and pregnancy rates of cows on the farm.

An experienced breeder can significantly improve breeding performance and overall production levels on the farm. The breeding technician should interact with the manager, vet and nutritionist to ensure these areas are all working together.

Nutritionist

Your nutritionist is a key member of your management and advisory team. The nutritionist plays a pivotal role on the farm and should interact regularly with various team members. A primary responsibility is to be in communication with the manager or owner as often as needed by a particular farm depending on the working relationship.

Many nutritionists simply run rations. As forages, feed ingredients, prices and production conditions change, rations need to be updated and revised in an effort to keep nutrient intake optimized. In other cases, the nutritionist may oversee feed mixing and delivery, performance and component production, body condition, feed inventory and feed and ingredient quality assessment and control.

As part of the overall advisory and management team, he or she should interact with the veterinarian to monitor cow health and reproduction, as the nutritional program affects these.

The nutritionist should also interact with the agronomist in assessing crop varieties and how well these choices may affect the feeding and nutrition program for months to come.

Nutritionists may work for the dairy as an independent consultant or may be employed by a feed company or other agricultural product sales entity. When selecting a nutritionist, the dairy producer needs to decide what services are wanted or needed.

If the dairy wants a truly independent nutritionist, they will pay a fee for this service. No other compensation should be accepted from sales of premix or any of the other components of the feeding program.

It is not uncommon for some nutritionists to accept some type of compensation from one or more feed ingredients or additive manufacturers for assistance in helping them get their product onto different farms. While it is fine for this to occur, it should only happen if the dairy client is aware of this and is OK with this relationship.

So when selecting a nutritionist, the producer should determine if the individual has these types of relationships in place. An independent consultant is not truly independent if they are accepting compensation for product sales onto the farm or if they are charging a consulting fee and selling a mineral or vitamin premix onto the farm as well. As mentioned, these relationships are fine as long as there is full disclosure.

Feed company nutritionists can also be very effective. Their service comes in combination with purchase of various products, feeds and supplements from the company the nutritionist works for. In these situations, the producer somewhat gives up the opportunity to compare product costs from other area manufacturers.

Whichever type of nutritionist a producer may choose, the nutritionist should be experienced, well trained and educated, and have effective communication abilities not only with the producer but the other members of the advisory team. And again, full disclosure of how the nutritionist is compensated should be provided.

Veterinarian

The vet plays a vital role in oversight of animal health programs on the farm and may also be directly involved with breeding and reproductive performance. Interaction between the vet and nutritionist is extremely important although, in some cases, this relationship can be a bit tenuous.

The vet should be on the farm regularly and familiar enough with the feeding program to help anticipate to some degree when or if metabolic issues might occur. He also recommends much of the products needed to address health issues in all stages of production.

Like the other members of the management and advisory team, the veterinarian should be experienced and well trained in dairy cow health. He or she should also potentially have an adequate support team to continuously manage the needs of the farm.

Advisory meetings

Periodically, it can be helpful to bring all the advisory team together with the on-farm management team to discuss current “state of the farm” status. Each member should be prepared to address the areas they have been working in and the challenges or successes.

Each meeting should be open, frank and, above all, constructive. While the meetings give each member an opportunity to discuss his or her perspectives as related to their efforts on the farm, it also provides them a chance to hear and see things going on they are not as readily experienced with or focused on. These can also help develop the relationships and communication among team members, which can be very helpful.

While it is up to the producer to decide how often to hold these meetings, generally, quarterly or biannually seem to be effective. Meetings should be well planned with plenty of advance notice given to all team members to ensure they can fit these into their schedules.

Conclusions

Dairying is not easy. Selecting and bringing together qualified, experienced and well-trained individuals from a variety of disciplines can help with focus, problem solving and overall management. Above all, it creates a network that can simplify planning and decision-making that facilitates profitability.  end mark

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant from Sulphur Springs, Texas.

Stephen B. Blezinger

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