Being prepared for a farm crisis

Crisis planning is about looking ahead at the potential for events that could seriously disrupt your business. This time of year is a good time to develop a plan and access the resources available to help you.

Dairy cows eating from a feed bunker.

What does it mean to be prepared for a crisis, and what crises should you be prepared for? These are questions that every dairy family should ask and discuss annually. Crisis preparedness is an often-overlooked area of farm risk management; yet the risk here is loss of reputation and potentially, loss of market.

What happens on and off the farm not only could affect the farm’s opportunity to sell product, but also could impact the industry as well. A black eye for a dairy farm gives the dairy industry a nasty bruise. 

A farm crisis is an event that seriously disrupts the farm. Examples include: an environmental problem such as a chemical or manure spill, an animal abuse problem by employees or by a visitor, an employee injury or death by accident or intention, or a food product quality problem caused by accident or intention. When a crisis occurs, it is best to be prepared ahead of time.

In the moment, when an ambulance is on the way, a reporter is calling, and people are talking about the crisis on social media, clarity of thought is rare. Natural inclinations (such as talking to everyone who calls) may not be best at that moment or may not be the most important thing to do. And what happens if the crisis occurs while you, the owners, are away from the farm? What do your employees know to do, or who to call? What resources do they have?

Michigan State University Extension along with United Dairy Industry of Michigan (UDIM) can help you prepare ahead of time by helping dairy farm families work through the development of a crisis plan. Creating a plan on paper and sharing it with family and people you work with, gives everyone an opportunity to talk about the “what-if.” It not only opens the door to discussions, but also leads to further planning to reduce the risk of some potential crises.

A good place to begin is to ask employees and family members about the “near misses” that have occurred. These are the accidents that didn’t happen, but almost did. This question must be asked with the preface that there will be no negative consequences for owning up to them. This is not about blaming but about understanding what risks are most likely to occur on your farm and learning from them. Identifying risks should result in taking steps to prevent their recurrence by doing things differently.

It is also a good opportunity to talk about what to do if something bad happens - who gets called, what gets done, and where are the supplies that might be needed? Being open and discussing things like this helps everyone feel involved and valued; and builds team unity and purpose.

It is likely that developing a crisis plan is new ground for many. That is why UDIM offers specific help, working with farm families in developing a plan customized for their farm and risk. It is why MSU Extension is partnering with them to help farmers. UDIM has a crisis plan template that can be the starting point for a plan tailored to match each farm’s unique characteristics.

Jolene Griffin of UDIM and I recently talked about crisis planning, recorded the discussion as a Dairy Team Coffee Break podcast. It would be a good listen for the family together.

Besides offering to help farmers develop plans, Griffin (jolene@milkmeansmore.org) and I (durstp@msu.edu) are interested in talking with farmers who already have a plan or who have learned things in the process of enduring a crisis. Learning from others, rather than firsthand, is best when it comes to crisis planning.

No one wants to go through a crisis. Planning for one will not make it more likely; rather we believe that it will make it easier to work through if a crisis does occur. But planned or not, crises occur, and the repercussions are quick and widespread. Take the time now to get help and begin work on your plan. If a crisis does occur on your dairy farm, call UDIM at any time at 517-349-8923.

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