Raising cows is like playing ball

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

Play the percentages

In baseball, managers play the percentages and they usually go with what has a higher likelihood of success. Left-handed hitters bat against right-handed pitchers and vice versa. Certain batters will be in the line-up against certain pitchers because of their record against that pitcher and fielders shift to cover the hitting tendencies of batters (like the famous Jim Thome shift).

Does this mean that right-handed batters can’t hit right-handed pitchers? No. Does it mean that batters always hit to the same spot or that the past will repeat itself? 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 procedures mean that 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 follow the recommended procedures and gets by without it, but percentages do play out. To be consistent and for best results over the long run, it is best to follow the practices that have been proven to be effective.

View the big picture

Decisions need to be made that consider a whole complex of factors, whether it’s dairy or baseball.

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 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 that the herd has declined; butterfat dipped to 3.3 percent, cows are getting sick and 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 fiber that changed because of a difference in feed moisture. In a case where fiber is marginal, things can be OK for a while and then change dramatically when something changes just a little.

Cows respond to the whole combination of factors, the ration is just one of those things. Humans have a tendency to isolate one factor to blame for the failure of the entire system, cows don’t.  Our job is to better understand the combination of things affecting the cow and make adjustments as needed.

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. Those are helpful, but if you don’t do the basics these won’t help you win.

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.

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:

  1. Production
  2. Marketing
  3. Managing

He said that 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 make up for your weaknesses. They don’t have to be partners, but you need to have a regular relationship with them and trust them.

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 make changes.

Stats measure the progress, show the strengths and weaknesses, indicate trends and tendencies and give you reason to celebrate or 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 starts with measuring.

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?

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, and when you have an attitude of continual improvement, you will achieve increasing success.

Raising dairy cows 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!

By the way, you’ve got a lot of fans out here!



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