Set high, but sustainable goals for your herd

On-farm goals should be rewarding and achievable but not so aggressive that they can’t continue to be sustained.

Setting goals is an important role of a business leader. We want to take the business to a higher level that has benefits for all involved. But we can be too aggressive in setting goals that we may not be able to sustain, if indeed we can achieve them.  

“I don’t like to push my cows” is a statement that drives me nuts! Cows respond to good nutrition, great comfort and health with a genetic will to produce lots of milk. I often think that when someone makes a statement like that, they are really saying, “I don’t like to push myself”.

How hard do you push? And what are the limits? I’ve been thinking in those terms more and more, trying to discern what makes a great agricultural business. At one end we have to fight complacency, but at the other end, the level we want to achieve has to be sustainable.

As an educator with Michigan State University Extension, I consider my role often to be a challenger – to challenge producers to new levels. Because there is such a great tendency to do the same thing day after day, year after year, I want to challenge people to set goals that are rewarding and to achieve them. But there is a limit.

Maybe a good way to explain this is to give an example, albeit not a great one. My office mates decided that it would be good for us to participate in a weight loss challenge. Well, of course I need that. After all, like others, I have gotten accustomed to my weight, when really I should set a goal for a lower weight. The program, and my zealous office mates serve the role as challengers.

Now what if I really did give up pies, doughnuts, or ice cream on a grilled sticky bun, I might indeed lose a lot of weight (which I have not yet done). In fact, given a starvation diet and walking a marathon each day, I might win the contest and be ready for an “after” picture. However, what happens after that? Would I be able to keep the weight off? Not if the changes to diet and lifestyle were not sustainable. And maybe the goals have changed with time since this old body has aged.

Taking that picture and applying it to agricultural businesses, I believe in the importance of setting goals that challenge us to achieve new levels, but we need to make sure that we set goals for levels that we, and our employees, can sustain.

Sustaining a level of achievement means that we can consistently marshal the time and effort it takes to perform at that level. Maybe that takes an additional employee in a certain area or maybe they have to be relieved of other responsibilities to be able to focus on this area.

As we try to achieve new levels, we need to look for roadblocks or bottlenecks that make achieving the goal harder than it has to be. We need to simplify processes so that they can be consistently followed and we need to get input from employees about how to do something repeatedly with minimum procedural drift.

For years, I have seen businesses fail because they did not keep up; they did not pursue higher levels of performance. Recently, though I saw a business come to its end not because it failed in any way related to production, performance or profitability. Rather, it came to its end because it achieved levels that were not sustainable on management. They had set and achieved goals that stretched them, but the stress of managing labor at that level was not something they could continually do.

I have often said that the toughest area to manage in dairy farming is not the cows, land, or even the employees. The toughest area of management is managing yourself. The key to the success of a business is the person at the top and the expectations he or she places on themselves, the discipline they have to carry it out and the ability they have to rally all others in the operation to achieve the goals they set. Add to that not only to set goals, but to set appropriate goals that are obtainable and sustainable.

Need a challenge? Give me a call. Need to gauge your level of expectations? Give me a call. Need someone who is good at losing weight? Call somebody else!

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