Successfully managing a dairy farm requires utilizing both the head and the heart, dairy producers and representatives of allied industries were reminded during the Professional Dairy Producers (PDPW) 2019 Managers Academy, held Jan. 15-17 in Charleston, South Carolina.
Natzke dave
Editor / Progressive Dairy

With one of the fastest-growing seaports on the East Coast serving as a backdrop, the theme for this year’s program was “Successfully Navigating in Today’s Dairy Industry.” It attracted about 75 dairy owners and managers, industry supplier representatives, processors, marketers and distributors from 13 states and Canada.

Lean, Six Sigma business concepts

Ray Davis, managing partner with Supply Velocity, a business execution, process improvement and supply chain management consulting firm, started his career with DuPont, where he acquired his initial training in Lean and Six Sigma. Through discussion and interactive exercises, Davis shared how dairy producers and others might incorporate those concepts into their own businesses.

Davis differentiated between the two principles.

“‘Lean’ isn’t about ‘big’ things; it’s about a lot of little things that add up,” Davis said. He identified sources of “waste” that might apply to a dairy, including unnecessary work or motion, having to wait for someone else before you are able to complete your task, and mismanagement of inventories, materials or equipment that hamper efficiency or result in underutilization of people. “Look for where they creep into your operation,” he said.


“Where Lean is about applying best practices for processing and speed, Six Sigma isn’t just about processes; it’s a rigorous problem-solving method,” Davis explained. “It’s about understanding that all processes have variations, and understanding what is ‘normal’ variation or when something else is happening to cause variation.”

Davis urged dairy farm and industry managers to identify key metrics to measure processes and identify the root of problems, then use that data to develop, prioritize and sustain solutions.

“I trust the tools, but you have to be the experts in dairy,” Davis said. “You have to figure out where you are and where you want to go.”

Charlie Crave, a partner in Crave Brothers Farm and Farmstead Cheese, Waterloo, Wisconsin, said the discussion created awareness of where efficiencies can be improved in his own businesses.

“The revelation to me was the multiplier effect of non-Lean practices,” said Crave, who was attending his fifth PDPW Managers Academy. “For instance, we often think it’s a 10-minute interruption but, in reality, the number of interruptions times the number of individuals times the lost fixed costs often creates an 80 percent efficiency versus a perceived 95-plus percent efficiency.”

Invest in people

A longtime PDPW favorite, Tom Thibodeau took participants beyond process management and urged them to invest in the employees and other people in their business. He said analysis showed only 5 percent of companies implementing Lean concepts were still using them five years later because the methods were not initially implemented with employees in mind.

“People are highly engaged when they know you care about them,” Thibodeau said. “Engagement raises productivity.”

Thibodeau, a faculty member of Viterbo University, LaCrosse, Wisconsin, stressed that successful employee management goes beyond implementing efficient processes, and also requires leadership through character: honesty, communication, confidence, commitment, positive attitude and creativity.

“People do not leave jobs; they leave supervisors,” Thibodeau said. “It’s all about character. Supervisors must embrace the values they hold to be true.”

He urged Managers Academy participants to spend more time with individual employees, actively listening to them, to make a personal connection.

“People need to be reminded how good they are more than they need to be instructed,” Thibodeau said. “Engage and inspire people for a greater good every day. That is servant leadership.”

Upon returning home, Managers Academy participants Tammy and Corey Hodorff of Second-Look Holsteins, Eden, Wisconsin, put some of Thibodeau’s message into practice.

“A takeaway we’ve already incorporated on the farm is to increase effort to share appreciation,” Tammy Hodorff said. “As business owners and managers, we are often quick to point out mistakes or shortcomings but often not as likely to share praise and appreciation. A ‘praise post’ board has been implemented for our farm owners, managers and team members to share uplifting words acknowledging positive actions.”

Plantation, peanut and port tours

The Managers Academy included a day of executive-level tours, allowing dairy participants to learn where they share common ground with other business managers in implementing process and people management concepts. Tour stops included:

  • The Charleston Tea Plantation, the only operation of its kind in North America. After a tour of the plantation and its processing facilities, Bill Hall, founder and partner, helped draw parallels between tea and milk production. He described the challenges of sustainably producing and marketing a low-margin product while facing weather, labor, marketing and labeling issues.

    Bill Hall
  • Carolina Peanuts, a peanut handling, grading and marketing operation. Carolina Peanuts was the creation of four peanut farmers who came together to address the marketing needs of growers and the demands of shellers and peanut product manufacturers. Moss Perrow, peanut producer and partner in Carolina Peanuts, shared how South Carolina’s 522 peanut growers face the challenges of weather, plant and insect pests, and low prices and margins. And, like dairy, the peanut industry faces issues of evolving consumer trends, food allergies and trade tariffs.

    Moss Perrow
  • The Port of Charleston. Participants toured the major U.S. East Coast seaport to witness firsthand how managers meet the challenges of regulations, weather and competition, including monitoring critical metrics to evaluate productivity and efficiency. Sales and logistics managers described how the port is attracting new customers through the creation of rail-based inland ports and its goal of building a new port – the deepest harbor on the East Coast, by 2021 – putting it in position to meet ever-increasing import-export demands and larger ships.

Managers Academy participant Zach Myers, former North Carolina dairy farmer who is transitioning to serve as risk education manager for Pennsylvania’s Center for Dairy Excellence, appreciated how activities at the port illustrated the application of Six Sigma and Lean concepts.

“As the tour bus pulled up to the gate, there was semi-trailer after semi-trailer going in and coming out of the port entrance/exit,” he said. “When we got in and saw all the semis and ‘yard dogs’ bustling around with thousands of empty and full containers to transport, it was clear what a logistical nightmare this is. However, listening to our tour guide, it was clear they had a process in place to function as efficiently and safely as possible.”

Other participant reflections

Dan Riddle with Colorado-based Agfinity, a large, full-service agricultural supply and service cooperative, said the link between the program and tours – along with participant networking – combined to add value to Managers Academy.

“A participant walks away motivated to improve operations, increase profitability, and is encouraged by the level of skill and expertise available to ensure success of the dairy industry today, tomorrow and in the future.”

Tim Baumgartner, team leader of dairy lending for Compeer Financial, New Holstein, Wisconsin, agreed.

“Conferences like this are essential to dairy producers, or other businesses within the industry, because it gives you the perspective of how global our markets have become,” he said. “To be able to hear other strategies or practices – whether that comes from tours, class sessions or networking – are essential for continued business improvement. The big plus to Managers Academy is not only do you discuss it in theory, but you also see it in practice. You get the opportunity to discuss it with your peers, away from the daily routine of your own business.”

Hodorff recommended other dairy farmers attend PDPW Managers Academy in the future.

“It can sometimes be easy to fall into the ‘We don’t have the time or money to do this’ mentality, but we are learning that investing in working ‘on’ our business is just as important as working ‘in’ our business,” she said. “We are grateful to PDPW and sponsors for informative and engaging programming that enables us to continue developing our leadership and business management skills.”

Vermont dairy producer Walt Gladstone attended the event with his son, Will.

“If I only had the chance for one meeting a year it would be the Managers Academy,” said Gladstone, Newmont Farm, Bradford, Vermont. “The networking with a very diverse group of dairy farmers from across the country is stimulating and fulfilling. And whenever you spend a few hours with Tom Thibodeau you become a better person: ‘You can’t be lean without love.’”  end mark

PHOTO 1: A tour of the Port of Charleston enabled Managers Academy participants to witness the logistical challenges of the fastest-growing port in the U.S.

PHOTO 2: Moss Perrow, peanut producer and partner in Carolina Peanuts, discussed some of the common challenges his industry shares with dairy farmers, including weather, low prices and margins, evolving consumer trends and trade tariffs. 

PHOTO 3: Bill Hall, founder of the Charleston Tea Plantation, shared the challenges of starting and maintaining the only tea plantation in North America. Photos by Fredric Ridenour.

Dave Natzke