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5 habits of highly effective dairy farmers

Progressive Dairy Editor Karen Lee Published on 14 May 2020

It’s been more than 30 years since Stephen Covey wrote and published his best-selling book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People; however, the information he covered continues to be relevant.

“Even today, depending on where you are in your life and when you read the book, it means you’ll take away some different things from it,” Lisa McCrea-Hemphill said.

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As a bovine veterinarian and business partner at Agwest Veterinary Group in Abbotsford, British Columbia, McCrea-Hemphill last read the book about a year-and-a-half ago.

“I started looking at it and thinking about the commonalities from these habits that he talked about with effective people and the interactions that I see with some of the farmers I get to work with every day,” she said.

McCrea-Hemphill identified five habits, some directly from the book and others she digressed, that relate to effective farming for a presentation she gave at the Western Canadian Dairy Seminar in Red Deer, Alberta, in March.

1. Be proactive

“When Covey talks about being proactive, he talks about it being a state of mind. ... It means that you’re taking responsibility for your life, and you’re not just letting life happen to you,” McCrea-Hemphill said.

Proactive farmers are driven by their values and realize they have the ability to choose how they respond to the environment around them.

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Covey used the analogy of two circles, one inside of the other. The outer circle is the circle of concern. These are the things that keep you up at night, such as supply management, the weather, government, etc. The inner circle is the circle of influence. These are things you can control.

Proactive farmers spend more time in the inner circle with the things they can influence, while reactive farmers are busy worrying and reacting to things in the outer circle that they cannot control. Proactive people find the more time spent in the inner circle, the larger it grows, and the more things they can influence.

“Proactive farmers rapidly identify problems and take initiative to try to change things as they arise. These are the movers and the shakers of the industry, but they’re not impulsive,” she said.

A proactive dairy farm looking to increase milk production isn’t going to go buy more cows. They will set goals for better calf raising, work with their veterinarian to improve herd health and increase fertility, and work with their nutritionist on forage and bunk management.

2. Know your purpose

“This is not in Covey’s book, but I do feel that it’s the core of when we see that farms are most successful, these farms know the purpose for why they do their business,” McCrea-Hemphill said.

Farmers with this habit don’t just think about what they do, but why they do it. They know why they get up every morning and why they chose to milk cows for a living.

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Everyone’s why is different, but knowing what it is helps a farmer to keep going when times are tough. It also helps when constructing a mission and vision statement for the farm and in making decisions.

“It’s important to think about what the core values are for your farm,” she said, adding, “Whatever your values are, that drives every decision that you make on your farm and is the purpose of your farming.”

3. Begin with the end in mind

As Covey explained in the book, everything is created twice – once in theory and once in reality. This translates to needing a plan and thinking about where you want to go. What is the farm going to look like in five, 10 or 15 years?

This exercise can lead to succession planning, facility renovation or expansion and other investment options.

4. Ability to prioritize and manage

With a plan in place, it is necessary to prioritize and organize tasks to figure out how to get there day by day.

“These farmers are very good managers, and they possess an attitude of excellence. Their attention for detail is immaculate. They’re very good at doing the little things right,” she said.

These farmers place people in the right positions on the farm and teach them how to do their job well. They provide tools like training and standard operating procedures in all areas of the farm.

They also surround themselves with key advisers that help them meet their goals. They have regular meetings to reflect on the past and set priorities for the future.

They understand their strengths and perform sensitivity analysis to find out their weaknesses.

5. Benchmark and analyze your performance

People with this habit recognize the key to reaching their goals is the ability to analyze and benchmark how they’ve been doing and where they’re going.

Be careful who you benchmark against, McCrea-Hemphill cautioned. Don’t compare your farm to the average number; look instead at the top 25% of farms.

More and more data is being gathered on dairy farms each day, but it is only useful if something is done with it. Use it to create key performance indicators or link it to financial reports to see how a change in one area impacts cash flow.

Bonus: Sharpen your saw

Abraham Lincoln once said, “If I only had an hour to chop down a tree, I would spend the first 45 minutes sharpening my axe.”

People can be more productive at the task at hand when their physical, spiritual, mental and social health is in good shape.

“Our companies nowadays recognize that employees are most productive when they’ve had a chance to take a break,” McCrea-Hemphill said.

Taking time away to fulfill these items will help farmers accomplish more when they get back to work.  end mark

Karen Lee
  • Karen Lee

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