The Center Focus: Planning Now for Big Decisions

9/15/2012 7:00 AM

Over the past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to talk with many dairy producers at various events across Pennsylvania. One statement I heard numerous times in reference to the dairy business on their farm was, “We’ve got some big decisions to make over the next few months.” In probing for more information, it became clear that nearly all businesses, definitely those in the dairy business, are currently faced with some big decisions.

The decisions referenced most often in our conversations involve feed and forage availability and whether to purchase feed or sell some cows. Other decisions focus on buying additional land, while still others involved pending transitions with family coming in or going out of the business. The reality is that, in this ever changing business of dairy, the big decisions do not come slowly or get easier.

One thing we at the center believe strongly is that the dairy industry provides real opportunity for entrepreneurs in this region. We have both land base and a majority of consumers right here — something no other region can say. We also remain steadfast in believing the right approach to business is to focus on those things within our control and taking realistic stock of individual capabilities. Having said that, we know making big decisions happens best in life with input from others who can contribute honestly and compassionately.

The fall harvest and planting season may lend itself to devoting some “tractor seat” time to these decisions. As you find yourself in that situation, we encourage you to begin thinking as much about what resources are available to help in making the decisions as you are thinking about the decisions themselves. Gathering the right people to do a comprehensive analysis of your operation will most often lead to a more thorough and effective decision making process.

We know full well that each business and family is unique, and that no one approach or answer fits all — that is what makes the industry as special as it is. And that’s where any farm can benefit from utilizing the “Dairy Profit Team” and “Dairy Decision Consultant” programs. The center’s programs are designed to be tailored to meet an individual farm’s needs, with funding to bring together your closest advisors to brainstorm in the decision making process.

Having that outside input can put things in better perspective and help you identify something that may not be as easily in view from the tractor seat. Dairy farms aren’t the only businesses that can benefit from this outside perspective. At the center, we also depend on outside input to identify the programs and resources that are needed by the dairy industry. Our board of directors and advisory committees help provide this input. In some instances, we also ask for broader industry input.

In 2012, the center is conducting a “Pennsylvania Dairy Industry Producer Survey” to gather input from Pennsylvania’s 7,200 dairy farms on how ongoing industry changes are affecting individual dairy operations. We are hoping this input will provide a broader perspective into the future needs of our industry and how the center can better support those needs. A copy of the survey is available on our website at

Recently, the center partnered with the Center for Family Business, a non-profit located in Elizabethtown, Pa., on a two-day dairy farm transition workshop. A speaker at that workshop said the challenge on any dairy farm is “getting family groups thinking like strategic investors and acting as entrepreneurs.”

If you ask a CEO of any Fortune 500 company their process for strategic decision making, they would tell you it involves their board of directors — those trusted advisors that provide outside perspective. In the coming months, take time to assess your business and confront those difficult discussions that result in making big decisions.

As you are making those decisions, just don’t let your tractor cab be the only sounding board you’re using to bounce around your ideas. The Center for Dairy Excellence is here to help you put the right people in place to act as your board of directors offering input into your decision making process. Contact us at 717-346-0849 or info<\@> to find out how we can help.

Editor’s Note: John Frey is the Pa. Center of Dairy Excellence executive director.

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