In farming, we have a culture of putting out the white picket fence and hiding our mistakes. Instead, we need to flip this attitude around and, instead of sweeping our mistakes under the rug, get really good at finding flaws and fixing them.

Junkin andy
Andy (Caygeon) Junkin’s niche is helping stubborn farmers work better together. You can download ...

I once worked with clients who had a reputation for running one of the best-managed dairy farms in the county. From the outside, it looked as though there wasn’t a blade of grass out of place. The family took great pride in seeming perfect.

The truth was: The two brothers and a sister were constantly bickering – to the point that they were ready to split the operation. After two failed attempts at solving the conflict with other mediators, they called me in to help.

The family was surprised when I came right out and said: “What are your biggest weaknesses?” No one had asked them that before, and they had begun to believe their own stories that they were perfect.

It took me three hours to figure out that the real source of the conflict was: No one knew why the cows weren’t getting pregnant. That day, I helped them set some reasonable goals, including a target pregnancy of 20 percent.


Over the next six months, I helped everyone change the way they looked at and dealt with conflict. Instead of falling back into the habit of blaming someone else for a problem on the farm, I encouraged them to see it as a common issue they needed to work together to solve. Taking blame out of the equation meant each person had more energy to spend on improving the way the farm worked.

Once I taught the family how to see problems differently, it was time to work with the numbers. Each month, I asked the family what the actual pregnancy rate was and then compared it to the “bull’s-eye” rate of 20 percent. If it wasn’t on target, I asked the family why, and we started problem-solving together.

They had blamed the water, an unknown virus and anything that was really beyond their control. They didn’t want to admit to themselves they weren’t the astute managers they thought themselves to be. As it turned out, there was nothing wrong with the cows or water. The problem was: The family wasn’t communicating.

On busy days, each person thought someone else was watching the cows for signs of heat. No one made notes, so the cow breeder simply thought there were no cows to breed. They also realized they had an abnormally high stray voltage problem, and the one brother was supposed to get it fixed but had yet to get around to it.

Once they realized it was the way they worked together that was letting them down, it was time to find out what it was costing them. Every month, we compared the target metric with the actual metric for that month. In this example, the target metric was a 20 percent pregnancy rate for first-time breeding, and the current metric was 14 percent.

Next, we made a rough estimate of how much a 6 percent difference meant in terms of profit. For that 400-cow herd, the difference was more than $100,000 per year when you factor everything in. Seeing the numbers on paper motivated everyone to change their behavior. It got everyone focused on problem-solving.

This family was embarrassed by their production numbers as it pertained to pregnancy rate. They took great pride in their operation, and it shamed them that they had a flaw but couldn’t fix it. But instead of dealing with it, they had been sweeping it under the carpet, blaming other family members and the barn rather than themselves for the problem.

This is because they took pride in being perfect and did their best to appear perfect to the neighbors and even the vet whom they hired to help them solve such problems. It was a very emotional shame – but happens often. Everyone wants to brag about their production strengths but hide their weaknesses.

This was a “get it done” type of family who thought “communication” was a word hippies used. As soon as they realized they could save $115,000 by changing the way they communicated, things clicked in. It wasn’t wishy-washy stuff to them anymore. It had a serious impact on the farm’s profitability.

Once they realized it was OK to seek out imperfections in order to try to improve them, they started farming smarter and stopped wasting money. Seeing the numbers in black and white really motivated the whole family to change how they faced problems together. Instead of blaming each other, they stuck together as a team to make important decisions.

As a result of this cultural change, the three brothers are now building a $2 million barn expansion.

A family can keep track of more than one metric at a time. Once it has determined where it is now compared to where it wants to be, I post both numbers on a “scoreboard” at key traffic points where family and non-family members can see them.

For a dairy farm, I like to post a scoreboard in the shop, by the milk tank and in the farm office. Seeing them every day helps everyone focus on working together to turn the farm’s weaknesses into strengths.

Comparing current metrics to ideal metrics won’t fix everything, but it will help people stop pointing fingers at one another and start everyone working together to solve common problems. It will help you focus on dealing with your problems rationally instead of emotionally and instead of sweeping mistakes under the carpet, actually deal with them.

Eventually the goal is to accept that “we aren’t perfect but we have the tools to improve.” Once a family gets used to working together toward a common goal, it can tackle just about any issue, from human resources to major strategic changes.

If it worked for them, then it can work for you.  PD

PHOTO: This was a “get it done” type of family who thought “communication” was a word hippies used. As soon as they realized they could save $115,000 by changing the way they communicated, things clicked in. It had a serious impact on the farm’s profitability. Photo illustration by Kevin Brown.

Mark Andrew Junkin improves how farm families make decisions together in the years prior to farm succession. Get his book, Farming with Family: Ain’t Always Easy! at Agriculture Strategy or call at (800) 474-2057.

Mark Andrew Junkin