Understanding how our minds (and our cows’ minds) work is crucial to managing a dairy operation. This idea is also referred to as neurochemistry. Especially in the dairy industry, change is happening all the time. Understanding how your mind processes change can make it more manageable for your employees and cattle.

At the 2023 Pennsylvania Dairy Summit, Col. Leon “Sam” Barringer shared lessons learned from his combat experience on change management, leadership, teamsmanship and detecting abnormal/normal behavior. Barringer retired from the U.S. Air force in September 2021 after a 34-year career. He now works as a large animal veterinarian consultant, rancher and speaker as well as an instructor at the University of California – Davis.

Barringer emphasized the importance of feeding the nation and shared his unshakable belief that dairy farmers play a crucial role in keeping the U.S. safely nurtured.

“At my core, there are two things I want everyone to understand, and that is my patriotism and my love for what we do here as dairymen. They’re the same thing,” he said. “National security and food security are deeply intertwined. What you do as dairymen, or what we do in this sector of agriculture, is critical to national security.”

With dairy’s critical role in our nation, Barringer went on to share six interesting lessons on neurochemistry – and how the way we think, feel and lead a team can help us navigate the challenging demands of change.


Lesson 1: Engage the emotions

The dairy and agriculture industries are always trying to show people – the consumer – what we do.

“We frequently talk about things that engage the cerebrum. We raise our cows [well]. We keep people fed. But we don’t engage the emotional side of things [very well],” Barringer said.

According to Barringer, the amygdala is the emotional center of the brain. It is also the part of the brain that is responsible for long-term memory, meaning someone can retain what you’re sharing much longer if you engage with emotion.

“Whenever you are talking to someone about what you do, tell your story. If you can engage the amygdala and tell your story, then you can get people to see your side of it. If you can’t tell a story, you’re getting nowhere,” he added.

Barringer also added that individuals in the dairy business think and act differently than others in society. Dairy professionals are conceptualizers. He defines conceptualization as “the ability to take multiple ambiguous, seemingly disconnected circumstances and order that chaos into a sensible strategy to solve a problem.”

Between 5%-7% of people in the U.S. are conceptualizers, but 70% of people within the dairy industry are conceptualizers. The thinking of a conceptualizer and a non-conceptualizer are drastically different. Conceptualizers, including dairy farmers, fix things when they break and look to create solutions to problems. Non-conceptualizers often call a conceptualizer to help solve their problems. Barringer reminded the audience to embrace their ability to conceptualize when talking to consumers.

Lesson 2: Be a warrior

A warrior is someone who stands in the gap for someone else because they are in a position of power to do that. Barringer shared that when we get up every morning to take care of the most amazing animal on Earth, it takes a warrior mindset. Having a strong, resilient mindset is what shapes your daily habits and the way you lead a team through changing dynamics.

“Understand your core values, good habits and then understand what a warrior really is. Then look at yourself within that new light because we are warriors,” he said.

Lesson 3: Start with your “why”

Barringer started his session by explaining his “why” and emphasizing that food security and national security are synonymous to him. Next, he encouraged the audience to write down their whys. Why do you do what you do? What is your purpose?

Understanding your purpose and what matters most to you will help you navigate change.

“Once you have your ‘why’ settled, how and what you do will come out of that. Your core values will follow. Then, when change hits you, you [are able to] stay healthy because you know what your purpose is,” he added.

Lesson 4: Focus on synergy and teamsmanship

According to Barringer, in the military, leadership will get you killed. Teamsmanship, which is different, is what will allow you to accomplish things you never thought were possible. In the dairy industry, if you’ve ever had employees who are pulling against each other, you can get to zero very quickly. Working together as a team, aligned toward clear goals, allows much more to be accomplished.

“Whenever you’ve got a challenge out there, all you have to do is get the synergy of teamsmanship, and you can do anything,” Barringer said.

Lesson 5: Find pillars to live your life by

Barringer said the pillars he lives by are faith, family, friendship, fitness and funny (a sense of humor). Each of these pillars are crucial for a healthy lifestyle that allows you to embrace and handle change when it faces you and your dairy operation.

“If you don’t have a sense of humor in the face of really significant change, find someone who makes you laugh. That emotion was given to us for that very purpose to help us keep our sanity during change. You’ve got to laugh at things,” he shared.

Additionally, Barringer encouraged individuals to live by the five-hour rule. Spend at least five hours a week in new and diverse learning. Whether it’s learning about new technology that could benefit your operation or learning from an employee; it can help you stay open-minded and attuned to change.

Lesson 6: Remember the importance of excellence

As dairy producers, Barringer encourages us to be excellent in all we do. Core values and excellent habits are key players in our neurochemistry. We develop good and bad habits just as cows create habits, too. Barringer coins cows as “the biggest creatures of habit.”

“What happens when you break that habit? They don’t like it. Holsteins will go find a gate and break it. Jerseys will go find a gate and lick it,” he said. “We laugh because we know it’s true. How we develop and break them is hypercritical.”

Developing our mindsets is the same way. By implementing some of Barringer’s lessons, we can better withstand change – whether it strikes our employees, our farm, our family, our cows or dairy markets.

“At the end of the day, a whole lot of people are depending on us. The backbone of this country is the dairy and agriculture industry. I am challenging you to be excellent every day,” he added.

Jordan Anderson is an intern at the Center for Dairy Excellence and a student at the University of Wyoming where she studies ag communications.