These days, school is heralded as the only way to get ahead, be considered an expert or learn the cutting-edge way to do something. Not so. Let me save you some money before you decide formal education is the only way to move your dairy business forward.

Cooley walt polo
Editor and Podcast Host / Progressive Dairy

1. You don’t need a certificate to become educated.

Before I began my MBA studies online, someone suggested I design my own MBA curriculum from the best MBA books and save myself the money of a formal degree. Josh Kaufman promotes such an idea. His book The personal MBA: Master the art of business claims to be a world-class business education in a single volume. You can find the 99 best business books he recommends one read to attain MBA-level skills here. These are the books I loved reading before my MBA and those I will continue to read now after graduation. You can learn nearly as much about the principles and theories of managing your dairy business from reading these books as from listening to a lecture or writing a paper on the topic.

2. You will have to invest time, if not also some money, to improve your skills.

I found that most weeks I spent eight to 10 hours reading or doing classwork during my MBA. That’s more than 700 hours over the course of a degree. (This is one of those times I should issue a disclaimer to indicate that results may vary based on personal experience.) Becoming more business-savvy will take extra time – whether that’s a few extra minutes each day or a couple of hours on the weekend. 

Remember, education is a focused, disciplined time spent knowledge seeking. Most get their first degree from high school by attending class for so many hours over a period of years. Pursuing more business skills will require the same disciplined learning or you may risk only knowing enough to get yourself in trouble. You’ll need to set aside a few hours a week to read and apply what you learn. You might find guided courses on specific subjects that are of interest to you more helpful. These types of weekend or three-day short courses may cost a bit of money but can be helpful if you prefer to learn through an auditory or hands-on learning style. Travel to a metropolitan area where these are often held might also be required. Or if you prefer to stay at home, consider something like this guided leadership development system. (Full disclosure: This is not a paid endorsement, nor have I used the system I’ve mentioned here. It’s one of many that has just recently crossed my desk.)

3. Collaboration takes extra work, but usually better results follow. 

My least favorite classes during my MBA program were ones that required collaboration. That’s mostly because I’m not naturally outgoing but also because all of the coursework was online. Since we didn’t meet at a set time each week or were even on the same campus, it took extra effort to find a common time that everyone could meet.


Despite the difficulty, my coursework was always better when I had more input. Processes and outcomes will be better with more input on your dairy as well. I learned there’s a sweet spot of about four voices that can contribute comments before there’s not much useful thought added to a topic. So don’t let collaboration scare you or be perceived as too difficult. Find three or four trusted advisers who have skin in the game and who are willing to give you honest feedback. I promise your results will be better for seeking out their opinion all of the time and following it even some of the time.

4. Most everything you might be interested in learning is online, if you know where to look for it. 

The most helpful classes of an MBA program for dairy farmers are likely the required accounting and finance courses. You can find similar accounting and finance lessons that I paid for online. The best place to look is YouTube. For example, if you want to learn some financial accounting basics for farmers, start here. As formal learning moves increasingly online, more and more video resources are added to the internet. The better you become at Google searching with exact keywords, the faster you can find something on the topic that you’re looking for. Force yourself to learn something new by a specific deadline; then start reading articles online or watching videos about the topic. That’s in a nutshell what I did every week for two years. You can do just as well on your own, if disciplined.

Enrolling in advanced education will earn you a degree that is transferrable. It’s evidence of skills learned. However, if you don’t envision the need to transfer your business skills from one job to another, and most dairy CEOs probably fit in this category, you probably don’t need to spend money on a formal degree like I did. Follow the suggestions above to enhance your dairy business skills.  end mark

Walt Cooley

PHOTO: Illustration by Kristen Phillips.