On Learning From Other Farmers

Whenever we ask farmers what they value about coming to a meeting or an event, they always say the opportunity to network, talk to, and learn from other farmers is what they value the most. So, two years ago, when we decided to start a podcast series, we developed it with that principle in mind. We introduced “Cowside Conversations” with the basic concept that farmers learn the most from other farmers. Each month we interview a different farmer about something they are doing on their farm and then we create a podcast out of it.

Fast forward 24 months, we are now entering Season 3 of that podcast series, and it has been going very well. Sometimes it is difficult to get a farmer to agree to be interviewed, but once they do, they seem to enjoy sharing their story and what they learned along the way. We talk to a different producer each month and we’ve asked them about their cow care protocols, their cropping and harvesting strategies, how they have diversified their business, how they’ve modernized, how they transitioned it, what they’re doing to take care of their employees, and how they are prioritizing safety on the farm. Each conversation lasts 30 – 45 or more minutes, and we always come away with great insight that I think could be valuable to other farmers who are listening.

To date, we have had more than 7,100 downloads to the podcast series. We’ve gotten feedback from producers all over the country who are listening to it and finding it valuable. We have even had folks in Canada and the United Kingdom listen to some of the episodes. Seventy percent of those listening are listening to it from their phones, which to me means they are probably listening while they’re out on the farm working or driving somewhere. My favorite piece of feedback was when a listener provided a comment on Apple sharing that the podcast was helping them find some motivation they’ve lost over the years.

Looking back on Season 2, here are three things I learned from listening to our guests.

  • When you are beginning to think about a farm transition, involve a third-party consultant. “The consultant gave us some professional advice, but also just kept us moving forward. It’s a lot easier to get up and do the work that needs to get done and not talk about the things you don’t have to do that day,” John Kline from Lebanon County shared in Episode 1. “But if you want to create a transition plan, you’re going to have to take time to sit down and talk about it.”In Episode 4, Donny Bartch from Perry County shared how a consultant played a role in their transition. “Having a third-party moderator involved – someone who was unbiased and impartial to the situation – really helped us ask those important questions. It got people to think and answer the tough questions on what they wanted to see out of this transition,” he said.

    Finally, in Episode 10, Jared Kurtz from Berks County, discussed how they used a team of consultants. “Once everyone on the team got attuned to what was happening, we could talk directly with Dr. Gardner about the family dynamics piece, talk to Tim Beck from Penn State Extension about cash flow, talk with our accountant about tax implications, and talk with our attorney to structure things on the legal side,” he said.

  • Your employees are your most important asset, and you must treat them accordingly. In Episode 2, Allen Behrer and Pete Posnett of Huntingdon County shared how they are training their employees. “With the trainings you build, I think it’s always important to never lose sight of the individual people. That individual person in front of you who you’re training is more important than the training itself,” Pete shared in the podcast. “We have an ability through education to really bring the best out of them.”Greta Halahan talked about the unconventional way she is working with her employees in Episode 3. Living about three hours away from the dairy in Bedford County, Greta manages the herd remotely for part of the time. She uses technology, such as an activity monitoring system and an app, to monitor the cows and provide “to-do lists” for her employees. “We ask questions, make comments, and share whatever we need to. That’s how we communicate. It’s really nice because we can all see every communication,” she shared.

    In Episode 12, Tom Barley from Lancaster County shared how important setting and maintaining a culture is. “We’ve set the standard and culture that [our team] is going to work fast, they’re going to work hard, but they’re going to do it right. If that starts to slip when you have a new employees, it’s hard to get back,” he said. “But it is also important to show your employees that you care. Ask about their family, and get to know them.”

  • Getting performance out of your business is all about the details. Whether it is on the cropping side or on the cow side, our podcast guests talked about how they are focusing on every detail to make sure they are getting the performance and efficiency they want out of their business. In Episode 5, Candice White from Clinton County talked about how they began raising beef as a solution to manage feed intakes in their milking herd.“I was getting very frustrated when the cows didn’t have any feed in front of them. I thought, can’t we feed them more? We decided to take 30 Holstein steers and raise them, so they could help eat the leftover feed,” she explained. “Then it just evolved over time. I now take the bottom quarter of the low-producing cows and breed them all to beef.”

    In Episode 6, Ben Peckman from Franklin County talked about the attention he pays to his cropping strategies.  “Keeping the ground covered with a cover crop and keeping those living roots in the soil is important to me,” he shared in the podcast. “I like to have a diverse mix of species in my cover crops and in my general crop rotation. The more diverse the rotation can be, the better the soil health.”

    Clint Burkholder who is also from Franklin County shared how he is managing the details on both the crop and cow side. For harvesting high-quality forages, he focuses on harvest timing, seed varieties, and packing and covering. “If you get a good product in, but don’t do a good job getting all the air out of that silage, you’re going to end up with mold and other issues to deal with later on,” he said.

There was a lot more great advice in all 12 episodes of Season 2, as well as the episodes that can be found in Season 1. If you never listened to the podcast series, you should check it out. You can find it on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Amazon Music by searching Cowside Conversations. You’ll also find it on our website at centerfordairyexcellence.org/podcast. I hope you enjoy listening to their advice as much as I have.

Editor’s Note: This column is written by Jayne Sebright, executive director for the Center for Dairy Excellence.