Center Focus Column

Finding Strength Beyond Yourself

A couple of nights ago, I was reading through the paper and came across this quote: “The strongest people are not those who show strength in front of us but those who win battles we know nothing about.” I thought to myself how much this resonated with where we are in the dairy industry right now.

Every day farm families wage their own personal battles – whether it is working through a very challenging financial environment, dealing with increasing regulations in almost every area of their business, meeting the needs of a fickle consumer or just finding a way to navigate through the dynamics of running a family business into today’s world. It’s challenging at best, a battle at its worst.

Too often, though, we choose to fight those battles alone. In dairy, we are fortunate to have a strong network of people. Taking advantage of that network to share challenges, bounce around ideas and find solutions can help you grow beyond your own skillset and perspective to strengthen both your management ability and your business. With meeting season in full swing, now is the opportunity to build that network and take advantage of the people out there who share common goals and offer new perspective to whatever challenge you are facing.

It is easy to find a million reasons to stay home: “There is too much to do on the farm,” “We don’t have the time or money to get away,” “I’m not going to learn anything new,” “I am in no mood to listen to people talk about how great dairy is right now anyway.” But I would challenge each of you to take the time to get away, get new ideas and grow your network. You would be surprised how much a day away can rejuvenate your thought process and your perspective.

Lessons for the Farm and Life

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a conference hosted by Penn State in which the keynote speaker discussed how New York is educating consumers about dairy farm practices. Jessica Ziehm, who is the executive director of the New York Animal Ag Alliance, heads up the dairy cow birthing center held annually at the New York State Fair. With Pennsylvania’s own dairy cow birthing center, the Calving Corner, opening at the 2018 Pennsylvania Farm Show in January, I was particularly interested in learning from Jessica’s experience.

The three most significant things I took away from her presentation, though, had as much to do with life and relationships as it did with the Dairy Cow Birthing Center and communicating with consumers. Here they are:

  • Step out of your comfort zone. In her presentation, Jessica shared how they have had success getting people to think differently about dairy farm practices by getting them to step out of their comfort zone. She and her family have hosted people on their farm who had concerns about their farm practices and have taken them right inside the freestall facility with the cows standing around them. “Once they stepped out of their comfort zone, they were suddenly very attuned to everything around them and anything we had to say,” she said. “We had a captive audience and were able to change their perspective.”Isn’t that how it is in life? Right now, we are all out of our comfort zone. Suddenly everyone is looking at every aspect of their business and looking for anything that can be improved. Is that feed balanced to yield maximum components? Are we being as efficient as possible with our labor? Is our pregnancy rate as high as it can be? Who can help us get better? We are listening and watching for anything that can help us move back to a point where we are comfortable. But we shouldn’t have to wait until a challenge hits. Whether it is on the farm or in life, find ways to step outside your comfort zone, challenge yourself and move beyond what you thought was possible.
  • Invest in the goodwill bank. Jessica spoke about dairy farming and all farming today needing a social license to operate. It’s no longer just about taking care of your cows, being good stewards of the land and working hard to make a profit. Today our society is looking harder at the dairy farm and questioning every day why we do what we do and whether it’s socially acceptable.She encouraged all farms to invest in that goodwill bank by being transparent about what happens on the dairy farm and by doing good things within the community. Examples she gave included volunteering at the local food bank, giving your neighbors free sweet corn, and hosting tours on your farm. She said that once people connect with you and know essentially that you care, they are more understanding when things go wrong. This is a good practice not just for dairy farmers, but for everyone. We need to invest in building relationships and helping others because we never know when the favor will need returned.
  • Listen. Whether it is on your farm or with your neighbors, sometimes we are so quick to get our point across that we don’t listen to what the other person is saying. If we would just stop and listen, in many cases it would avoid conflicts and lead to a much quicker resolution. Jessica suggested, if you are in a situation where a consumer is asking you a heated question about your farming practices, you should stop and ask two to three questions before replying. Ask questions like “Why do you feel that way?” or “What makes you believe that is true?” Knowing where they are coming from can help you better address their concern. Really, that’s a good practice in any situation.

It’s easy this time of year to go into hibernation. But taking advantage of those opportunities to get out, grow your network and learn new things can give you even more strength in fighting those personal battles you face on your farm and in your life. Take advantage of at least one opportunity to get off the farm this meeting season. I bet you’ll be thankful you did.

As always, the center is here to be a resource for your dairy farm. To learn more about our on-farm program resources or how we can help, call us at 717-346-0849 or visit our website at

Editor’s Note:This column is written by Jayne Sebright, executive director for the Center for Dairy Excellence, and published monthly in the Lancaster Farming Dairy Reporter.