“They just don’t make ’em like they used to.” I’m sure every reader has heard that phrase, and many of us have uttered it ourselves. If you’re talking about cars and trucks, then you are absolutely right; they don’t make them like they used to – they make them far better than they used to.

Stup richard
Agricultural Workforce Specialist / Cornell University

Cars used to break down, rust out and fall apart by the time they reached 100,000 miles; now most of them are only halfway through their lives at 100,000 miles. Not to mention they are far more efficient and dramatically safer than the cars built decades ago.

Why? A big part of the answer is the transformation of the auto industry by the quality management systems movement. Quality management systems is a philosophy of leadership connecting the wants and needs of the customer to the creative and technical possibility of the producer in a way that can unleash transformational change.

The Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) program is our industry’s much-needed response to the questions raised by consumers about milk and milk products.

The program addresses their safety, nutritional value, production practices and animal care. It’s a direct recognition our customers (people who consume dairy products) are an important part of our business, and we need to be highly responsive to answering their questions and assuring them of our industry’s responsible management practices. The FARM program adopts several elements of the quality management philosophy, notably:

  • Customer focus – For too long, dairy producers were removed from the demands and expectations of customers. FARM has focused the industry on recognizing customers’ expectations of quality must be front and center.

  • Process-centered – The first step in improving a production system is to document and gain control of what is happening right now. FARM’s focus on documenting written farm protocols and procedures is essential to quality.

  • Training – FARM ramps up expectations about training dairy employees at all levels in the organization and provides many helpful training tools.

  • Continual improvement – FARM introduces the concept of continual improvement, in the context of the industry overall constantly getting better in understanding and meeting consumer expectations.

While FARM is a good start, the focus so far has been on getting dairy farmers to document processes and comply with consumer expectations of quality. I’m concerned the FARM program focuses so much on compliance and animal welfare it leaves out other important aspects of a total quality management system approach.

There’s a whole lot more to quality management systems than what we’ve seen from FARM to this point. Much of what remains has direct potential for improvements in farm leadership, production and profitability. Let’s take a look at other elements of complete quality management systems that could be applied to dairy farms.

1. Systems integration – Decades of research and management experience clearly illustrate the inter-relatedness of dairy production systems. We know a cow’s potential for milk production and quality are clearly influenced by environment, health status, feed quality and other management factors. But we’ve also learned different systems the cow has experienced throughout its lifetime also affect its potential.

Its experiences as a transition cow, as a growing heifer and even back to the management systems when it was a newborn calf all affect the potential for milk quality and quantity. A dairy manager’s magnificent challenge is to integrate all of these management systems into the best possible experience for the animal and for the people who care for the animal throughout its productive life cycle.

2. Strategic planning – Quality must have a seat at the table when longer-term plans are made. Production efficiency and profitability have long dominated dairy farm strategic plans, but quality, defined by societal and consumer expectations, must now be part of the process. Quality-driven practices and outcomes such as animal welfare, environmental sustainability and the development of attractive, family-sustaining farm jobs should be part of dairy farm strategic planning in the future.

3. Continual improvement – While FARM alludes to continual improvement, the program does not emphasize its core function in production processes other than those for animal welfare and product safety.

A core feature of quality management is the application of knowledge, employee experience and innovation to the continual improvement of production systems. In dairy, this would include continual improvement of systems and metrics such as milk production, herd health, labor savings and cost control.

4. Fact-based decisions – Quality management includes regular recording of measurable data about production processes, monitoring the data for problems and opportunities, and feedback into the system to maintain and constantly improve quality results.

Dairy farms generate colossal amounts of data that can be effectively monitored and applied for performance feedback, more informed decisions, better quality and continual improvement. Quality management includes tools such as statistical process control which can help managers understand variation in a system that is normal and variation that should be addressed as a problem to solve.

While cows are our productive units, people are the essential drivers of farm performance. Quality management systems strongly emphasize leadership and employee engagement.

5. Employee involvement – Quality systems cannot work without commitment from team members at all levels and throughout the organization. Leadership is critical to create a work environment where people feel empowered to do quality work, where goals are shared and where a sense of organizational commitment prevails.

6. Communications – Quality management systems place an emphasis on strong daily communications about operations. It is impossible to maintain high performance without effectively communicating information to the people who need it and can apply it to operations. Communications are also essential for people to maintain strong working relationships and to sustain motivation for quality work performance.

7. Change management – With continual improvement as a core feature, quality management systems by definition must address the need for change. Change is difficult for most people; we cling to our long-held beliefs and practices that succeeded for us in the past.

Continual improvement demands the constant testing and evaluation of processes to determine if better ways can be found. Change management is a whole field of practice and expertise dairy farms can apply to helping teams better adapt to change and designing systems that deliver the best possible results based on current information.

We need FARM; it’s the best answer we have to reassure our customers dairy products are safe and responsibly produced. Many of today’s consumers demand this information, so there’s no point in hiding from this fact. But let’s do more than FARM.

A complete quality management systems approach can bring long-term success to the dairy industry and help us to address complex issues such as environmental sustainability, profitability, leadership and workforce development.  end mark

Richard E. Stup