Note: This is the first in a five-part series that explores the role of culture in dairy farm success and productivity. People live and work in cultures. In fact, you have spent your whole life in various cultures, whether you realize it or not.

For instance, agriculture – the practices passed down through the ages to care for livestock, produce forages and grains, preserve natural resources and be sustainable – is, as the name implies, a culture.

In its simplest form, culture is how you get things done.

Cultures large and small

Do you have a culture on your dairy? Absolutely. When you visit a neighbor’s dairy or a dairy in another part of the country or world, after a few minutes, you probably say to yourself, “They do things differently around here.”

That is the difference between your dairy’s culture and their dairy’s culture.


Agriculture, and in particular your culture, gives humanity food security. The skills, knowledge and behaviors for making quality milk have been passed down for generations, taught and then reinforced in dairy science programs around the globe. Culture is how you know what to do and how you get it done. But how well do you understand this concept and its potential impact on your dairy?

Over the next several months, a series of articles in Progressive Dairyman will explore culture on dairies – what it means, how you measure it and how you can improve it on your operation.

“It’s easy to buy the equipment and the tools employees need to get the job done,” notes John Pagel of Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy LLC, Kewaunee, Wisconsin.

“But it’s the management tools like understanding what culture is and how to impact it that are the type of tools we really need to help managers,” he adds. “We’re trying to be better than what/who we are, and that’s very important.”

Where does culture come from?

Before you can influence and change your dairy’s culture, it will be helpful to understand a little more about culture.

Is the culture on your dairy a direct result of your efforts? Yes and no. The vast majority of dairy farms are multi-generational, meaning significant practices have been passed down from previous generations. In the blank space in Figure 1, jot down who taught you how to care for cows, calves and heifers; how to feed your animals; how to milk a cow; and more.

Blank box

It was most likely a parent, a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, some family member – or maybe an employee you were teamed up with on your first dairy job.

Does that mean culture comes from apprenticeships? Sort of. People do a lot of learning by watching others, doing it themselves and discussing. Plus, people obtain an emotional high when they do it themselves and get it right, which reinforces culture – the way you get things done.

In other words, culture comes from what is learned from prior generations as well as what individuals learn from their own experience and then pass along to others.

Again, what is culture?

A formal, academic definition of culture offers more insight. Author Edgar Schein defines culture as, “A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration that has worked well enough to be considered valid. Therefore, (these basic assumptions are) to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems.”

Note the phrase “taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel.” This is the challenge or opportunity to create, modify or destroy culture on your dairy.

There are methods for getting work done and a desire for these behaviors to be done consistently right. The word “protocol” comes to mind. When everyone follows “protocols” many times and in a number of different areas on the dairy, it creates your dairy’s culture.

These methods and protocols become “how we do things around here.” And that is culture.

Many factors influence your dairy’s culture. Climate and weather dictate facilities, housing and cow comfort. These conditions create traditions like the idealized red dairy barn. Environment and weather also influence your protocols and behaviors. Hence, they impact the behaviors of employees, managers and owners. Your decisions to raise forages and other crops also have a bearing on your culture.

Culture in action

Following is a real-life example of how culture, or “how you get things done,” impacted a dairy’s productivity, personnel, morale and performance. This is just one of many examples that will be shared and examined throughout this article series.

A manager has been employed for more than a decade on an upper Midwest dairy and crop farm and is in charge of the crop side of the business. The team members were frustrated with their manager, as he did not communicate frequently with his team and often retained information until it was time to do the work.

The team wanted the manager to better leverage their knowledge and talents and be more engaging on planning and organizing, plus all employees wanted to be more prepared for the upcoming day’s work. This subculture of the farm’s culture was an opportunity to get work done in an efficient, effective manner.

The farm owner saw an opportunity to help the team as they were getting “knee-jerk” instructions. Everyone was overwhelmed with messages being texted back and forth about which fields employees were to perform work in, where to go after they finished and overall expectations.

The owner is very committed to resolving the situation with the manager and team.

To find a solution, the dairy brought the entire team together to understand individual members’ unique sensory and cognitive differences and address opportunities. The process created positive change within the team by engaging the members to find solutions.

Now the team has greater respect and tolerance for individual differences, enhanced communications and sharing of ideas. And team members feel like their team is progressing in a better direction. To be long-term beneficial, these types of efforts require the support of dairy leadership – it is seldom a one-time meeting.

The steps taken to tackle the situation and the resulting outcome will be shared in future articles in this series, so stay tuned. PD

Monty Miller is the owner of International Performance Solutions, a consulting practice that engages in training, development and organizational change. Neil Michael is global tech services manager with Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition.

The second article (The measure of a dairy's culture) discussed data collected for 28 dairies and more than 450 participants using the Organizational Culture Inventory (OCI) results and the desire of all participants to create more constructive cultures and reduce defensive behaviors.

The third article (Move culture in a positive direction) shared learnings from two dairies leveraging their OCI results, methods and outcomes.

The fourth article (Culture assessments: How to gain an accurate appraisal) discussed conducting a meaningful culture assessment takes time, focus and a sincere commitment to learn and grow – by dairy producers and dairy employees.

The fifth article (Case study: Culture in action during a tractor fire) helps us see what training and organization can do.