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Managing for consistency while leading through change

  • Cornell Cooperative Extension
  • Animal Science

The 2023 Operations Managers Conference, held January 31 and February 1 in East Syracuse, NY, drew an engaged crowd of middle managers and industry leaders. Over 200 people attended, 45 percent of who were dairy farm owners, managers and employees. Presented by Cornell CALS PRO-DAIRY and the Northeast Dairy Producers Association (NEDPA), Operations Managers Conference provided an opportunity for the people responsible for day-to-day activities on dairy farms to learn management and operations skills from dynamic speakers and to network with industry professionals. This year’s conference theme and topics focused on managing for consistency while leading through change. Keynotes included presentations on The Intersection Between Animal and Human Wellbeing and Productivity, Earning Public Trust in Modern Dairy Practices, Everything You Must Know About Sleep But Are Too Tired to Ask!, and a Safety Panel.

The Intersection Between Animal and Human Wellbeing and Productivity

Dr. Noa Román-Muñiz, Colorado State University, who spoke several times during the conference, kicked off the lead conference presentation “The Intersection Between Animal and Human Wellbeing and Productivity” with high energy. “I’m passionate about this,” said the veterinarian, who is from a dairy farm in Puerto Rico. “There’s quite a few challenges associated with livestock. With a multicultural workforce there are training and communications challenges,” she said. Hispanic and Latinx workers have more injuries and illnesses than domestic workers within the industry. “Without healthy workers we don’t have healthy cows,” she said. “What we decide should be right for the animal but also for the humans.” Dr. Román-Muñiz  advocated for training and clear protocols, with a focus on prevention, and follow-up training after three months, on issues of safety, like zoonotic disease transfer. “Knowledge and attitude improve with training,” she said. Training helps employees feel safe, valued, and prepared to do their job successfully. And, the work environment modeled and created by managers impacts the well-being and performance of their employees. “Management shapes the culture of the workplace,” she said. “Managers are key.” Dr. Román-Muñiz especially advocated around training employees on safe euthanasia and empowering workers to know when to make this choice, recognizing the mental health impacts associated with this. “Caretakers have a strong bond with cattle and a desire to provide high quality care,” she said. “Euthanasia is viewed as a necessary kindness for sick or injured cattle.” Helping employees manage this stress, also supports their personal and family life.

In her afternoon presentation “Communication Among English- and Spanish-speaking Team Members” Dr. Román-Muñiz said “I thought everything had to do with language and culture but it’s not that simple,” she said. “It’s how we manage the farm.” Communication gaps can be overcome, but management gaps are more challenging. Be conscious about choosing translators, and use more than one. “The person with translation skills has power,” Dr. Román-Muñiz said. She also acknowledged basic knowledge gaps in the workforce. Focus on the how and why to engage workers before the training so they feel like they’re part of the process. “Telling why frees you,” she said. “The focus is on growing everyone. It engages them, and allows them to make decisions, which frees you.”

Earning Public Trust in Modern Dairy Practices

Farmers have a high degree of trust from customers, but many customers are unfamiliar with today’s practices and technologies. “Consumers are truly curious and that curiosity is the reason for their questions. Perhaps they don’t have roots in farming. They’re seeing a change in agriculture and they don’t know if they can trust it,” said Amy te Plate-Church, The Center for Food Integrity, in her keynote presentation “Earning Public Trust in Modern Dairy Practices." To start, te Plate-Church recommends thinking of consumers as customers. Today’s customers expect innovation, transparency, honesty, verification of practices, responsibility, and respect, she said. They value, and are willing to pay for, sustainability, animal welfare, and social responsibility. “How you feel about what you do every day is how we continue to build trust with the customer,” te Plate-Church said. “How often do we let our passion shine through? We need to communicate our care and our why to build trust in today’s food system.” Customers post-COVID have a new appreciation for food and where it comes from, she said. Build common ground by leading with shared values. “Shared values are three to five times more important to build trust,” she said. Instead of “research shows” connect first with “it sounds like you care about animals, and so do I.”

Everything You Must Know About Sleep But Are Too Tired to Ask!

Having seven hours of sleep is essential for adult learning, memory, and creative problem solving, said Dr. James Maas, Sleep for Success! in his keynote “Everything You Must Know About Sleep But Are Too Tired to Ask”. A sleeping brain transfers knowledge and skills to long-term memory and is the single most effective way to improve overall health and performance. “The average person takes 20 minutes to fall asleep. If you fall asleep quick you are seriously sleep deprived,” Dr. Maas said. Good sleep hygiene includes a regular schedule, a dark, cool room, restricting caffeine after 2:00 PM and limiting electronics before sleep. A white noise machine, like The Dohm, can help. “If you’re stressed out, have a little worry time. Write them down,” he said. “If you’re having insomnia, try not to fall asleep, it will find you. Imagine you’re lying on a beach being peaceful and calm.” Stay up late a few nights with no naps to consolidate your sleep. If you wake in the middle of the night, try reducing liquids before going to bed, and keep lights low if you get up. Alertness dips between one and three PM in the afternoon. If possible, Dr. Maas said, take a 20 minute power nap, or a 90 minute nap for a full REM cycle. Exposure to UV light can jumpstart mornings. Sit a few feet away from a light for 15 minutes. For shift work, Dr. Maas recommends working the same schedule for three weeks, and then having three days to adjust sleep schedule between schedule changes. Use a daylight spectrum light, reduce caffeine, sleep in a dark room, and have daylight spectrum blocking glasses for the drive home, he said.

Safety Programs: The Importance of Prioritizing Continuous Improvement

Safety was a strong theme of the conference. “Safety doesn’t interrupt the work. It’s how we do the work,” said Lisa Ford, Cayuga Marketing Members Program Manager, during her presentation on “Creating a Culture of Safety in Your Workplace”. Build safety into SOP’s. “Do the right thing, model, and take action,” she said. This was followed later in the conference by a sobering first-hand account of a farm accident during the “Safety Panel, Safety Programs: The Importance of Prioritizing Continuous Improvement”, led by Tonya Van Slyke, NEDPA Executive Director. Have a written emergency plan in place and reach out for support from NYCAMH, NEDPA and other industry organizations if an incident does occur. Review what occurred to prevent future accidents and offer mental health support to those impacted. “We need to normalize having conversations about near misses and the emotional burden of working on a dairy,” Dr. Noa Román-Muñiz said. 

Breakout sessions

Attendees engaged with breakout sessions in dairy, human resource management and crops tracks. A number of the sessions featured ways that technology, good data, clear communication, and streamlined processes, improve decision-making, efficiency, and accountability in your herd and with your farm team.

  • Dairy presentations included: Using Employee Level Reporting to Get Better Outcomes for Your Team, Calf Barn Ventilation, Epidemiology of Bovine Colostrum Yield and Brix % in New York Herds, and Improving Dairy Herd Health Monitoring and Management Using Automated Monitoring Technologies.
  • “There are no jobs, there are professions. Establish your culture,” said Collin McCarthy, Cargill, who led a presentation on Structure: Reducing Chaos and the Broken Stove Meetings. Clear communication of responsibilities and the chain of command on farms builds order. Other human resource management sessions included: Conflict Management for Those Who Do Not Like Conflict Management, Improving Communication Among English- and Spanish-speaking Team Members, Engaging Today's Employees Using Technology, Lean 5S: Making the Physical Workplace Work!, and Creating a Culture of Safety in Your Workplace.
  • Crops sessions included: What is NetZero and What Does it Mean to Me as a Middle Manager?, Planting Green: Advantages of Delayed Cover Crop Termination in Western New York, Corn Planter Workshop, and concluded with a  CAFO Manure Applicator Training.


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