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What the U.S. should take away from a large-herds survey

Hugh Jellie Published on 10 April 2013

The intensification of New Zealand’s dairy farming industry over the past two decades has caused the aggregation of many smaller, family-operated dairy farms into fewer but larger “corporate-type” enterprises.

This has placed quite different demands on those operating and working in them. The industry has not adapted well to this change.

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It continues to be riddled by a shortage of appropriately skilled staff, low succession rates and a poor history of staff retention both on the farm and in the industry.

This is posing a significant threat to its long-term sustainability. Research into these and other issues on large-herd dairy farms is virtually non-existent.

In 2008, my veterinary business conducted a research project to investigate these issues in New Zealand large herds.

This qualitative research project was designed to gain a baseline understanding of how the standard of management practiced on large-herd dairy farms influences the factors which drive farm performance and productivity, to identify what resources are required to improve large-herd farm performance and how to attract and retain skilled and educated people into the industry.

The project involved a sample of 91 representative North and South Island farms with a minimum herd size of 600 dairy cows and employing at least five permanent staff members.

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Semi-structured individual interviews were held on-farm with farm owners or their managers as well as with two of their junior staff members. A total of 247 interviews were conducted and nearly 300 hours of recording was analyzed. It was the largest study of its kind in New Zealand.

The study demonstrated that many large-herd farms were inadequately resourced, which in turn had an adverse impact on staff performance, the status of animal health, the environmental effects of the farming operation and, ultimately, the productivity and profitability of the farm.

Here are a few excerpts of the study conclusions that I think are most relevant to the U.S.

People management skills within large dairy herds generally aren’t great. This doesn’t really come as a surprise; it’s what most businesses struggle with. However, it is a very important issue for large herds.

Most animal problems stem from people problems – a high proportion of animal health conditions can be prevented by better husbandry and better skills. People are the single biggest impactor on animals and you can’t run a large herd without them. And, incidentally, good people management costs less.

Staff turnover is way too high. This is partially due to poor people-management practices. Fifty-three percent of staff interviewed had been on that farm for less than a year. Forty-one percent of staff had been in the industry for less than three years.

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This means we have a very inexperienced work force – some animal and general farming skills take years to fully develop. This needs to be considered carefully when allocating tasks and taken into account when contemplating the ongoing training needs for your farm to reach full potential.

The survey highlighted a real lack of leadership. Most managers interviewed felt they were strong and capable leaders – but when pressed, many of them didn’t really know what this meant or required.

Many didn’t understand the difference between leadership and management. Staff need leadership. As in the case of people management, leadership is a skill that we must develop if we are to be truly successful in large herds.

Many large-herd farms are not set up well enough for the size of the herd. Many farms grow in a haphazard, unplanned manner around the requirements of increased cow numbers. Infrastructure becomes piecemeal and inadequate.

Farm infrastructure is an important component of a large-herd dairy farm and we must invest in it to have a successful business. Without adequate infrastructure, people, animals and the environment suffer, which ultimately means that the New Zealand dairy industry suffers.

Large herds are big business. They are multi-million dollar operations and need to be set up as such. They require good infrastructure, leadership, management, financials, plans and operations. A good working environment for cows and people is fundamental to a good large-herd business – and it’s our responsibility to provide it.

The status of the animal on large-herd dairy farms is not high enough. Large-herd dairying is taken as an excuse for not being able to keep focus on the individual cow.

Too many people working in the industry don’t understand the impacts their actions have on the animal, nor in fact do they understand the needs of the animals with which they work.

It is concluded that this poses a threat to the longer-term sustainability of the industry as herd sizes continue to increase, and a response is needed for it to remain sustainable in a changing global market environment.

The Caring Dairying program was developed as a result of this study. Skills within the industry are being lost, and there appears to be a loss of reference to “what good looks like.”

The program has developed the concept of good farming practices, which provide such a frame of reference and is using this approach linked to the ability to differentiate products from farms certified with such practices to drive change in the industry.

There are lessons to be learned from this study that have global application. The corporatization of dairying, the increasing of herd sizes and heavy dependence on commoditization is not improving farming performance and productivity, nor is it assisting rural communities or those who live in them.

The Caring Dairying program is attempting to set up a model that allows for better returns to those owning and working on the land supported by a discerning market which values milk with such provenance. This supports and rewards good practice and the harmony between land, animal and people, which has been part of farming as we remember it.

I don’t believe the growth in dairy farming I see around the world is sustainable. We need to look carefully at what is happening and find a way that better supports the people who own the land and work in the industry.

Sustainability is first about being able to look after ourselves. I see less of us around the world able to do this, less able to work in the industry – an increasing dependence on support networks with serious risks to the rural sector. We can change this. PD
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Hugh Jellie
CEO
Dairy Concepts Ltd.

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