Food and I are pretty good friends. In fact, we may be best friends. And, as a dairy farmer, I am a food producer. So the headline “Why sleep is more important than food” posted to Businessweek’s Web site really caught my eye.  

In it, Tony Schwartz, president and chief executive officer of The Energy Project and author of “The Way We’re Working isn’t Working”, argues that sleep should not be the thing we short-change ourselves on.

“Why is sleep one of the first things we're willing to sacrifice as the demands in our lives keep rising?” he asks. “We continue to live by a remarkably durable myth: sleeping one hour less will give us one more hour of productivity.

“In reality, the research suggests that even small amounts of sleep deprivation take a significant toll on our health, our mood, our cognitive capacity and our productivity,” he argues.

What does this have to do with dairy farming? Whether it’s delivering a calf at midnight, spending time with the night shift or pouring over management data into the wee hours, ours is an occupation that requires long hours, late nights and often, foregoing regular bedtimes.

It’s sometimes hard to strike a balance between everything that must be done and available time, but don’t let things get out of whack too far for too long. Easier said, than done, I know. I’ve been there.

But consider this: According to an article in Newsweek magazine, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania restricted volunteers to less than six hours in bed per night for two weeks. The volunteers perceived only a small increase in sleepiness and thought they were functioning relatively normally. However, formal testing showed that their cognitive abilities and reaction times progressively declined during the two weeks. By the end of the two-week test, they were as impaired as subjects who had been awake continuously for 48 hours.

Your whole livelihood depends on using your cognitive skills to make good decisions — and react to physical situations — in a timely fashion. So stats like these should at least make you think twice about the value of sleep.

Furthermore, researchers at the University of California-Berkeley recently found compelling evidence that during dreamless, or non-REM, sleep bursts of brain waves known as “sleep spindles” may be networking between key regions of the brain to clear a path to learning. Their findings are reported in the journal Current Biology.

“A lot of that spindle-rich sleep is occurring the second half of the night, so if you sleep six hours or less, you are shortchanging yourself. You will have fewer spindles, and you might not be able to learn as much,” says Bryce Mander, a post-doctoral fellow in psychology and the study’s lead author.

“Our findings demonstrate that sleep may selectively seek out and operate on our memory systems to restore their critical functions,” Walker says. “This discovery indicates that we not only need sleep after learning to consolidate what we’ve memorized, but that we also need it before learning, so that we can recharge and soak up new information the next day.”

Today’s dairy business climate requires that you learn lessons quickly and soak up as much information as possible to deal with a rapidly changing world. I realize, somewhat ironically, that Daylight Savings Time begins in most areas this weekend, but catching a few extra zzz’s each night might very well be one of the best investments you make.