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The people side of dairying: How to manage change at the farm level

Emily Barge for Progressive Dairy Published on 03 October 2021

We have been confronted with a lot of change this past year, and the dairy industry is no different. Getting comfortable with a changing marketplace, changing technology and changing consumer habits can be challenging for anyone, but especially dairy farmers who work closely with family on a daily basis.

How can you get everyone on the farm to embrace change instead of fearing it?



“The rate of change is accelerating. There’s less time to sit back, observe and watch our neighbours because by the time we get used to one change, there’s another coming right behind it,” said Charles Gardner during the Pennsylvania Center for Dairy Excellence’s 2020 “People Side of Dairying” three-part webinar series.

In part two of the series, Gardner discussed the topic of change management and shared ways dairy professionals can implement change at the farm level.

Overcoming conflict and uncertainty

While accepting change is part of being successful, there are many reasons dairy farmers avoid change. A dairy producer may be surrounded by a peer group that does it the old way, without any role models for the new way.

Gardner said there can also be fear of failure or skepticism. For many, change can threaten their sense of identity.

“Successful farms are constantly seeking to improve their profit and sustainability. This requires change, but change is scary. This can lead to resistance and conflict,” he said.


Strategic Planning

While some conflict is natural and even necessary, destructive conflict – which is often spurred by change – can cause employees and family members to feel threatened and fearful. For example, a farm may agree to try a new milking routine at a team meeting. The son could be enthused about the idea, while his father is reluctant. A few days later, when his dad doesn’t follow the new milking routine, various conflicts and negative emotions can begin to surface. The son may feel the desire to assert his leadership. The father may feel that if the change leads to improvement on the farm, he would be wrong and the son could leverage that against him. In both cases, they may not be aware of their feelings, which can lead to tension and uncertainty.

“Most of the time, change is something we’re not sure about. We’re not sure how we’re going to react,” Gardner said. “This is why people are sometimes reluctant to change. It’s why change is so stressful and why families get into arguments about it. We just feel like we’re not in control anymore.”

To combat some of this uncertainty and gain a sense of control, Gardner suggested focusing on three main factors to ensure change is successful:

  • Readiness – Is the farm ready? Is there enough incentive to make employees feel ready to make a change?

  • Capability – Does the farm have the people, are they trained enough, and do they have the resources needed to implement the change?

  • Beliefs – What is the overall attitude of the organization in relation to change?

To help attendees further examine these factors and investigate how change impacts their individual operations, Gardner suggested creating a strategic plan.

Building a roadmap

When a dairy farm decides it is ready, capable and motivated to start implementing changes, a strategic plan can create a detailed roadmap.


“Strategic plans can help farms clarify why change is needed and provide motivation to make the changes,” Gardner said. “A plan helps us know where we are now and where we need to be and fill in the blanks on how we get there.”

Gardner outlined three steps in the strategic planning process:

Where are we now? This step involves identifying a mission statement for the farm and summarizing the key reasons why you are in business and your family’s key values. It also involves performing an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis. There are consultants trained in SWOT analysis that can guide farms through this process.

“With a strategic plan in place, it’s easier to know why we’re making certain changes. We increase our circle of control despite the changes in the world around us. It helps us be proactive instead of reactive,” Gardner added.

How do we get there? During this step, farms should clarify their short-term objectives and create an action plan. Identify who’s responsible for certain goals next week and next month to ensure you are reaching your objectives and fulfilling your mission statement.

Where do we need to be? As a team, evaluate the farm’s long-term goals and determine how they fit into your mission statement. Pinpoint which actions you need to take now to reach those long-term milestones.

Communication matters

As farms work through the strategic planning process and begin taking action, family members and employees may be at different comfort levels with change. Depending on their motivation, some individuals might be ambivalent, while others may already be making plans for the change. Gardner suggested evaluating where individuals are at and moving slowly, taking it one step at a time.

“When someone is ambivalent, they are often stuck weighing the benefits and costs of change. They’re contemplating it. They’re thinking about change but have no plan yet. This is usually the second stage of change,” Gardner shared.

As you address new changes, pay attention to the way individuals are communicating. They may be engaging in “change talk,” where they appear open to change, or “sustain talk,” where they seem to be more comfortable sustaining the status quo.

  • Change talk – Employees might be saying something like, “Getting cows bred sooner would result in a fresher herd.” “Production would surely improve if that happened.” “Our veterinarian has had good results in other herds.”

  • Sustain talk – Employees might be saying something like, “The shots are so expensive. I’m not sure it really pays.” “We just don’t have time to do all that is needed for this program.” “What if it doesn’t help? Then we spent all that time and money for nothing.”

Gardner reminded attendees that how you respond to statements like these can make a difference. He suggested using open-ended questions or directives. Give affirmation and positive feedback when you hear change talk. If you hear sustain talk, discourage it and try to evoke their desire to make a change, encourage their ability to do it and help them see the need for it.

To get the best outcomes, it’s also important to include everyone in the decision-making process. Encourage discussion and ask questions to generate consensus. If dairy farmers remain open-minded about alternatives that family members or employees suggest, it could improve compliance when it comes to successfully implementing the change.

“Invite their input prior to making a decision. Explain the situation, the goals, and get their opinion. Be sure to explain the ‘why’ and the reason behind it,” Gardner advised.

Leading the way

When it comes to making a change on the farm, Gardner admitted that relapse is possible. He encouraged attendees to be prepared for setbacks and invest time into evaluating whether changes were positive or negative for their operation.

“Maybe the new plan didn’t work. That’s a legitimate reason to return to how you were previously doing it,” Gardner said. “Maybe the plan worked but the cost was just too high in terms of labour, stress or dollars. Maybe someone is just not comfortable with the new routine, and they go back to their old ways.”

No matter what, change is hard. If you can’t decide whether you should pursue a particular change on your dairy, Gardner shared the following questions that can help provide some clarity. Your answers might lead the way and help you uncover the motivation to make a change.

  • Why do you want to make this change?
  • How might you go about it?
  • What are the three best reasons to do it?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the most), how important is it to make this change?
  • Whatever number you chose above, why is it not a lower one? end mark

Emily Barge is a communications and marketing manager with Pennsylvania’s Center for Dairy Excellence. Email Emily Barge.