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Dairymen can learn lessons from baseball

Phil Durst Published on 20 July 2012

It’s baseball season again! I love the game and look forward to the start of the season each spring. Sure, it’s just a game, but there are some lessons from baseball we can apply to dairy whether you are a fan or not.

1. Play the percentages
In baseball, managers play the percentages – they usually go with what has a higher likelihood of success.

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So left-handed hitters bat against right-handed pitchers and vice versa; certain individuals will be in the lineup against certain pitchers because of their record against that pitcher; fielders shift to cover the hitting tendencies of batters (like the famous Jim Thome shift).

Does this mean right-handed batters can’t hit against right-handed pitchers? No. Does it mean batters always hit to the same location or that the past will always repeat? Certainly not.

In dairy we talk about recommended practices for milking prep, vaccination, sire selection, calving-ease sires for heifers and much more. Does using those mean we will always get the result we want? No.

None of these guarantee 100 percent results – and we have all heard of someone who doesn’t do the recommended thing and is getting by with it – but percentages do play out. For consistency, for best results over the long run, it is best to follow the practices proven to be effective.

2. View the big picture
Decisions need to be made that consider a whole complex of factors, whether in dairy or in baseball.

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Picture this baseball scenario:

Sixth inning with two outs and the team is down by a run
The pitcher has been OK, but he has thrown 100 pitches already
The number eight batter gets on base and there is now a man on first and second.

Who will bat in the ninth spot this time? There is no question in my mind that it will be a pinch hitter for the pitcher. But if any of those factors had been different, then the pitcher would more likely bat.

In dairy, picture this scenario: You haven’t changed a thing but, all of a sudden, it seems the herd has declined – butterfat dipped to 3.3 percent; cows are getting sick; many are going off feed.

Even though you didn’t intentionally or directly change anything, something obviously changed. Maybe it was the digestibility of the fibre that changed because of a difference in feed moisture.

In a case where fibre is marginal, things can be OK for a while and then change dramatically when something changes just a little.

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Cows respond to the whole combination of factors – of which the ration is just one. We tend to view things in isolation, but cows don’t. Our job is to better understand the combination of things affecting the cow and make adjustments as needed.

3. You’ve got to master the basics
In baseball, the basics include:

Advancing the base runner (hit, sacrifice or bunt)
Throwing to the correct base to get the lead runner out
Backing up every throw and not throwing the ball away
Getting the leadoff batter out

When a player or team fails to execute those basics, they usually lose. Sometimes players and fans get caught up in less significant things, such as the number of strikeouts or extra-base hits. It is not that those aren’t helpful, but if you don’t do the basics these won’t help much.

In dairy some of the basics include:

Producing high-quality forage
Producing high-quality milk (SCC <100,000)
Healthy calves
Healthy cows

Maybe you need to make some changes. When you strengthen the basics, you’ll find other things work better.

4. It’s a team sport
There are nine positions in baseball. You might have a utility infielder who can play several different positions, but no one can play all the positions well.

I heard a presentation about business success in which the speaker, Ernesto Sirillo, highlighted three vital functions a business must successfully perform: production, marketing and managing.

He said he has never found a person who could do all three well. Yet all three are essential. Therefore, success in business depends on more than one person.

The business of dairy is not different. You need others. Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses and work with others who have strengths you do not possess.

They don’t have to be partners, but you need to have a regular relationship with them and trust them.

5. It’s important to know the stats
Baseball is a game of statistics. Everything in baseball is measured, maybe obsessively so, but managers use statistics to manage their players and to make changes.

Stats measure the progress, show the faults and the strengths, indicate trends and tendencies and give you reason to celebrate or to make changes.

What kind of data might help you manage a dairy herd for greater profitability?

Heifer growth rate
Milk production of first-calf heifers
Culls/deaths within the first 30 days in milk
Performance of cows bred after 180 days in milk
Cost of feed per hundredweight of milk

How could knowing any of these help you? You could make changes to improve the performance as measured by the number. The result would be greater profitability, but it begins with measuring.

6. It takes a manager
Can you imagine a team carrying a person on the payroll who doesn’t hit, field or pitch? What good is he anyway? Yet every team has a manager because the value of a good manager is far greater than measured by those functions.

What does a manager do?

Prepares the team
Plans the strategy against the opponent
Makes decisions about personnel

Your business is similar and yet are you investing enough time managing? What should the manager of a dairy do?

Direct the employees
Monitor and evaluate the numbers to detect problems
Make decisions about changes
Plan the future direction of the operation

What will it take for you to be able to spend more time managing? What areas in your operation need more management?

7. It’s at least nine innings and a long season
It’s a long season in baseball and you have to be patient. You can’t make all the necessary changes right away. It takes years to build a championship team.

But when you make the right moves, when you have an attitude of continual improvement and of continually working toward a more competitive club in the future, you will achieve increasing success.

Dairying is similar. There will be setbacks and there will be lean times, but keep working at building a competitive business. Don’t be discouraged and don’t get impatient. But likewise, don’t get complacent.

So, what is the conclusion? Take a different look at your business and work to add more to the wins column this year. So play ball! And let’s go Tigers!

And by the way, you’ve got a lot of fans out here!  PD

Phil Durst
Senior Extension Dairy Educator
Michigan State University

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