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Change the language

Mark Andrew Junkin for Progressive Dairyman Published on 01 March 2018
Rountable illustration

According to neurology studies, the average human only thinks about seven to nine things at a time. Indeed, there are only a handful of things kicking around in that brain of yours and mine.

The question you’ve got to ask is: What do you think about, and what do your partners think about? Are they the same things? For parents passing on the farm, what the next generation is concerned with will determine the farm’s long-term success. Allow me to illustrate with an example of a client I’ve helped in the beef industry.



A father-in-law named Rick, who had a very successful feedlot, contacted me one day. He wanted to hand over his cattle empire to his son-in-law Harry. Even though Harry was a hard worker, Rick was concerned Harry was just not getting the bigger picture.

Harry was the “getting ’er done” kind of guy and could fix anything. He was concerned with the to-do list in the shop in addition to chores and basic field crop work. Harry was infatuated with keeping the lawns cut short and not having a nail out of place on the homestead.

Rick let Harry look over the farm’s year-end financials and past feed records, but Harry glanced at them with little interest, as if it was a church bulletin. Yet Harry pored over farm equipment papers.

Harry couldn’t tell you what the operation’s feed conversion rate was. He had no idea about the significance of where the percentage point was on this number. Harry didn’t think that way. He was concerned about maintaining equipment – but didn’t understand what made that equipment pay.

Rick decided to include Harry in a business meeting which included the farm’s nutritionists, veterinarian and a computer geek from a feed company’s head office. They had just done a benchmarking survey comparing their operation against others.


The topic centered on feed conversion rates. To Rick, this was the most important meeting of the year because he lived and died based on feed conversion rates.

He could tell you the feed conversion rate of each pen of cattle as far back as the 1980s, when he started measuring this statistic. Over the years, his attention to this number and the decisions made according to this number had made him incredibly successful.

Rick was in his 60s but was considering building barns with slatted floors for his daughter and son-in-law instead of open-pen feedlots because it made feed conversion that much better.

It was a significant investment and would probably take longer to pay off than Rick thought he’d live. It was based on this benchmarking meeting that Rick wanted to have the discussion with his kids about whether to spend millions to build covered feedyards or to hold off.

Harry said very little in the meeting and nothing of any intelligence. Harry sat there with a glazed look and thought the meeting was a waste of his time. It was a sunny morning, and he had a long list of better things to do than to sit with these geeks.

Harry was thinking about the hay laying down in the field and the thunderstorm forecast to come in that night. He was thinking about the tire that had to be fixed on that baler and how much time it was going to take to get that baler moving in the field.


Both men were thinking about different goals, but both men were right – in their own way. Harry was concerned about day-to-day operations because that was his role. Rick was concerned about long-term strategy because that’s what made him successful.

The problem wasn’t how Harry didn’t take an interest in what was discussed in that meeting – it was how he understood the concerns discussed.

Those concerns, like the feed conversion rate, didn’t impact his daily decisions or his job performance because Harry wasn’t judged by the feed conversion rate; Rick judged him by how much work got done within a day. Thus, Harry thought about feed conversions very differently.

For this farm, I had to help Rick appreciate the fact Harry was driven to get as much work done in a day as possible. He had to appreciate the fact Harry cared about a storm looming and what wet hay would do to feed quality.

He had to appreciate that his son-in-law was infatuated with equipment maintenance and how he kept the homestead so tidy. But it was still Rick’s responsibility and challenge to help Harry care about feed conversion and other strategic numbers with as much care and attention as he did.

Because it wasn’t until Harry internalized the importance of feed conversion he would become a successful manager. There was no sense in discussing a building expansion or succession plan until this was done.

But the question is: How do you get your business partner to internalize a goal? It isn’t easy, but it is critical.

Having a family meeting whereby the family brainstorms the farm’s top five strategic numbers is a good start. For each family member, these numbers are going to be different, but it will ultimately determine where the farm goes/grows.

The key thing when developing these numbers is: The entire family must be involved in the brainstorming, and then the group must prioritize these numbers together. After this meeting, these numbers can’t be thrown into a binder but should be put on a kitchen fridge where they can be looked at often.

Tying these numbers to rewards is key. Setting stretch goals and providing rewards can really help the next generation internalize them. For instance, Rick set the goal that if the feedlot increased its return on assets from 2.4 percent to 3.5 percent within three years, they would pay for Harry and his family to go to Disney World.

Harry started paying close attention to that number and the statistics that impacted return on assets, including feed conversion rates. A 1 percent improvement in return on assets on a $5 million feedlot easily paid for that trip but, more importantly, this simple goal groomed a good operations manager into a strategic thinker.

Getting your family members to live/breathe the same goals will impact your farm’s long-term success. What is going on inside the head of the next generation?

Note: Although this article has been written from the perspective of the father-in-law, the same goes for the next generation trying to convince their parents on new efficiencies.

Before suggesting a change (i.e., building new barns to get higher feed conversion), first focus on getting your parents thinking about the ultimate goals (i.e., feed conversion) before suggesting a drastic change (covered yard versus open lot).

Focus on changing the language and thought process before you even mention changing the landscape.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Ray Merritt.

Mark Andrew Junkin improves how farm families make decisions together in the years prior to farm succession. Get his book, Farming with Family: Ain’t Always Easy! at Agriculture Strategy or call at (800) 474-2057.

Mark Andrew Junkin