Dairy expansion – auto-pilot vs hands-on

Comment: For farmers considering significant expansion on their existing dairy farm or indeed establishing multiple farms, making the transition from managing cows and grass to managing a team of people and delegating effectively is a major challenge.

From my experience of working with large-scale and rapidly expanding dairy businesses in the UK, I observe this area can create more discussion and unfortunately create more sleepless nights for farm owners than any cow, grass, weather and price volatility issues.

How do you move from being ‘hands-on’ to having your farm or farms running on ‘auto-pilot’?

Simply, you have to clearly decide that is what you want to do. This involves a mindset shift, a role change within the business. You go from being the person who puts up reels or fixes leaking drinkers, to the person who facilitates weekly staff meetings or analyses weekly management reports emailed to your office.

Having made this decision, my observations tell me that there are three key things that you must get right:

1: Farm infrastructure
Simplicity. The farm has to be simple to operate. As owner/operators we often get too hands-on chasing the last 10 per cent of perfection for very little reward. Staff won’t or can’t be expected to show the same enthusiasm.

Farms on auto-pilot display:

– Excellent grazing infrastructure (roadways, fencing,water,multiple gaps and so on)
-Use 36 vs 12-hour grazing breaks as soon as ground conditions and/or grass supply allows (Only five important residual decisions per week vs 14)
– High dependence on good contractors for machinery work
– Clever use of batt-latches to move cows around the farm at anti-social hours
– Increasingly rear Youngstock off the milking platform
– Very simple cow wintering facilities. These farms are almost always spring calving, with cows dry for the winter months.

In summary,  if you  don’t want to be ‘on-call’ to fix every little problem or make every management decision, then you must provide better infrastructure, better working facilities and better cows than you will tolerate yourself.  This can cost a lot of money and time to put right. It will cost you more if you neglect it.

2: Quality people
Invest time and money in finding, hiring and appropriately training the right people. This will be easier if you have gotten Number 1 above sorted. Getting the right people can be a slow frustrating process, but the rewards are huge if you get it right.  Many farm owners link staff remuneration to the KPI’s of their business, for example bonuses around calf mortality, heifer weights, speed of calving and so on.

3. Communication
This is vital. The best guys hold weekly staff meetings. If they have multiple farms, they pull all the staff from all the farms together to form a mini discussion group.  Current management issues from each farm are discussed. Ideas proposed. Clear precise written plans and instructions are explained and communicated. Expectations are clarified. A farm map and weekly objectives are clearly displayed on whiteboards. Skype, email, texts, smartphone technology etc have an important and growing role to play in staff communications.

So in summary don’t underestimate the human resource skills you will need as your dairy business expands. Upskilling in this area may be as important to your future success as upskilling in grassland management or Youngstock rearing for example.

Many years ago I read an article about delegation. The author declared that on his farm, he practiced  the three ‘ds’

Decide. Delegate. Disappear.

Brian Costello has expanded his own dairy farm near Boyle, Co Roscommon from 80 to 200 cows. He also works part-time as a dairy consultant/discussion group facilitator, specialising in dairy expansion. Brian can be contacted via e mail on [email protected] or on Twitter @BrianCostello_

 

 

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