Getting off the farm

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As a Michigan State University Extension educator, I love to be called out to dairy farms to assist them in improving their farm operation. It’s an opportunity for farmers to “pick the brain” of someone who has information to share from research, and who has been on other farms and learned from their experience. It also gives me an opportunity to learn from the farm I am visiting. Bottom line is that we all have experience and knowledge to share, and we all learn as long as we are open to new ideas.

But there is something missing if you only invite the experts to your farm, whether it’s MSU or ag industry reps. The missing part is your direct interaction with other producers. Seeing others’ production practices and management principles directly allows you to dig deeper into how you might adopt that practice or principle on your farm. A visit to other farms may also just bring up some questions that you didn’t even know you needed to ask.

Too often we do things a certain way on the farm because “that’s the way we’ve always done it around here”. I’ve also heard things like “we’ve made a lot of money out of that barn” or “its worked for us in the past” or “don’t fix it if it isn’t broke”. Well, Henry Ford made a lot of money off the Model T but we’re not still building them! Visiting other farms helps us bring to question why we are doing things the way we are. It brings to light areas where we are doing well, that we might be able to make even better. Visiting other farms also allows the producers that you are visiting to improve their own operations, based on the discussions they have with you. Just explaining why you are doing something the way you are makes you stop, think, and clarify your practice.

Visiting other dairy farms also helps build community within the dairy industry. One great example of this is the Young, Savvy & into Dairy (YSD) group in the northeast Lower Peninsula of Michigan. This group regularly meets, visits each other’s dairy farms, provides feedback to how the operation can improve and discusses how they can individually become better dairy producers. When you come back to the farm with ideas from other farms, you model community to your employee workforce. You show that you are willing to learn from others, and you open the door for them to provide input as well.

Want to go one step further? Involve others in your visit to other farms. Employees, MSU educators, consultants, and other farmers who know your farm well can all assist you in determining how what you see on one farm, may work to improve your own operation.

A perceived barrier to visiting other farms is the fact that you haven’t been invited. Yet, in our experience asking dairy producers about the possibility of visiting them has always brought a positive response. It is best to arrange the visit in advance. Also when visiting farms plan to practice good biosecurity by wearing clean boots (disposable plastic ones are best) and clothes. Know what it is that you want to learn more about and plan to take pictures if you are interested in a facility issue.

MSU Extension educator Phil Durst, who developed the YSD groups, talks about “mutual success” – it is the belief that the greatest growth to an individual comes when we help each other learn and grow. Farm visits are a great way to do that.


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