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Stay connected: Being online is essential to dairy businesses

Jennifer Bradley Published on 11 March 2014

If you’ve ever seen the movie The Internship and are familiar with the World Wide Web, you probably were laughing at the scene where Vince Vaughn’s character kept saying “on the line” rather than “online.”

It demonstrated the generational, technological gap that exists in today’s culture, albeit it can be argued that is changing. Many young dairy farmers are spending time online for a variety of reasons, using this large source of information to benefit their businesses and also to connect with colleagues.

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The new hangout
Nic Mutsaers wanted to know why Progressive Dairyman classified a young farmer as someone at least 25 years old in a recent reader survey for the Canada publication. He’s 23. So, this dairy farmer tweeted the magazine.

“I just asked them directly,” Mutsaers says. “With social media, you’re able to do that.”

Mutsaers farms with his father near Embro, Ontario, Canada. JogView Farm milks 60 cows and raises crops on 160 acres. This young farmer now has part ownership in the business, and with a new freestall barn, is anxious to learn all he can about operating a successful dairy.

Alabama dairy farmer Will Gilmer is bringing energy to the agricultural social media environment. He maintains a farm blog and website, in addition to Twitter and Facebook accounts. Gilmer says social media is like walking into a room where you may know one or two people who are then talking to their friends.

“You get into the conversation, and after a few minutes, now you know them,” he explains. “I personally have found a lot of people I want to interact with by looking at connections of others I’m following online.”

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Gilmer’s family has been in the dairy business for more than a century in Shiloh, Alabama. He and his father both went to college and returned to the farm where they grew up. In 2005, Gilmer partnered with his dad, and today they milk an average of 200 cows, and own or lease 600 acres of land at Gilmer Dairy Farm.

Gilmer says most of the information he reads is from Twitter feeds, with links to individual blogs. Gilmer notes that Twitter is good for fast bits of info, and Facebook a great tool for reaching a wider audience of non-farmers. Mutsaers agrees and also can be found primarily on Twitter. It’s the more agriculture-based of the platforms, he says.

Both have Facebook pages; Gilmer updates one for the farm, and Mutsaers uses his personal account to comment about his work on the farm. While miles away from each other, these young farmers have much in common and are using the Internet to reach personal and professional goals.

Gilmer offers these tips to farmers wondering where to start on the social media circuit:

1. Pick a platform you’re interested in. (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)

2. Start small. Connect with a few people and slowly grow into it.

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“There are things you can do to reach a whole lot of people fast, but that’s just a numbers game,” he says. “There is not a lot of quality interaction then. It just takes time to grow.”

3. See what conversations your friends are in, and interact with them.

4. Once you get comfortable with a particular avenue of sharing, try something else.

5. A lot of the programs are intertwined. He uses Instagram to take pictures on the farm, then links them directly to Twitter and Facebook, reaching three audiences simultaneously.

Common bonds
It’s no secret farmers are known to drive around their neighborhoods each season. Curiosity is still alive and well online. Gilmer says he enjoys reading what other farmers across the country are doing and growing friendships through the Internet.

“It’s nice to be able to have conversations with other farmers who may not even be dairy farmers,” he says. “Occasionally I’ll find someone who has a challenge we had to deal with before, or if someone is overcoming an issue, I file the information in the back of my head.”

Mutsaers adds that the talk on Twitter tends to turn toward crops in the spring and fall. He learns a lot from the chatter among the custom harvesters, such as best percentage of moisture to put corn silage in at. “The custom guys know from experience,” he says.

“All the ideas come to one place; the best thing is I can follow along from the seat of the tractor, too.” He may wait a day or two to combine if others are recommending a certain percentage for a specific-size storage method.

Gilmer says there are very few farmers in his area, and even fewer young farmers. The entire state boasts only 50 or 52 dairy farms but 5 million people. Social media gives this Southern ag advocate the ability to interact with people his age and develop common bonds with his peers and community.

And don’t forget the feed guy and semen salesman, jokes Mutsaers, who finds these people online as well and is able to engage in conversations off the farm.

More importantly, Gilmer says being online gives him an opportunity to reach those not involved in agriculture. “We can let them know where we’re coming from, and we have the responsibility to listen to them,” he says. “The more conversations we can have with people, the more common ground we can find.”

Decisions by design
The social media gatherings haven’t garnered much of Jeff Pickart’s attention, but online farm analytics surely has. This young farmer from Malone, Wisconsin, says major purchase decisions on J&J Pickart Dairy come after research and review, much of which is done online.

The farm is home to more than 600 milking cows and 800 acres of leased and owned land. Pickart owns the farm and his father, John, has partially retired. “He spends more time online than me,” Pickart says with a laugh. “He has the time.”

Online research gives this young farmer some leverage when it comes to big equipment purchases. He is able to search around the country for the models he’s interested in and then take the information to meetings with the local dealerships.

Their inventory is also posted online, a benefit to a busy dairy owner. “I don’t have to look through the newspaper anymore,” he explains.

Pickart says most dealerships expect farmers to do this in today’s economy. “When you’re dealing with that kind of money, the more information you have, the better,” he says.

The Internet has become an integral part of the Pickart farm and its extended team. DHIA test results are sent directly to the farm’s veterinarian and nutritionist, and even the semen salesman, every other week. These team members then know what’s going on with the herd, before they visit, he says.

The test results themselves are downloaded a day after being processed, and Pickart no longer waits for the paper copies to arrive in the mail. His milking crew even gets evaluated when the equipment dealer does a service work call, and then emails the results to Pickart. “We do a lot of emailing,” he says.

In addition to research and work data, Pickart says that education is a beneficial component of the Internet. He and his father, as well as herdsman and vet, among others, have watched webinars together.

Two years ago the family farm built a calving facility, and he noticed the University of Wisconsin was hosting a webinar on just that topic. “When it comes to making decisions, we have a lot more tools to work with today,” he says.

Pickart says a farmer doesn’t need to be a tech guy to get the benefit of online capabilities. His herdsman is looking up info on the bulls he wants to use, and Pickart himself can keep tabs each day on the herd’s somatic cell counts, milk fat levels, tanker load weights, etc.

“There’s a lot of money at stake these days; we also have to support a lot of people,” says Pickart. “We want to be safe when making decisions.”

It’s also safe to say that the farming community’s presence on the Internet is only going to continue to grow. Farmers have the ability to reach a community, offering knowledge about farming to those who are outside it, but also grow their own business expertise. PD

Jennifer Bradley is a freelance writer in East Troy, Wisconsin.

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