On Reflection and Planning

I love listening to Christmas music during the holiday season because it always reminds me of home. I remember when I was little, starting as early as Thanksgiving weekend, my mom would have Christmas music playing in her kitchen while she baked some of the best Christmas cookies you can imagine. Somehow listening to those familiar songs can take me right back to that kitchen so many years ago.

A favorite song of mine is “So This Is Christmas,” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. “So this is Christmas, and what have we done?” That line makes me think about the year gone by and the memories that were part of it. As the days get colder and harvest winds down, it does seem like that sense of reflection often comes over the holiday season. We think about the relationships we have gained and those we lost. We pause to celebrate our successes, contemplate our mistakes, and find peace in the year that has passed.

So, what if we take that reflection one step further to consider what changes we could make in the coming year? All too often, as dairy farmers, we can be guilty of just moving from one day to the next without ever looking long term and planning for the future. It could be partly because we are so busy and immersed in the day to day, and it could be partly because planning can seem so intimidating. But it doesn’t have to be. Planning can be as simple as reflecting on the past to adjust for the future.

Pause to Reflect

As you take pause this season, consider sitting down on your own or bringing your key advisors around the table to reflect on what you can learn from the past year to improve in the next. Start by taking inventory of what happened. Where is milk production per cow compared to last year? What about your cull rate or your herd numbers? How are your replacements doing? What about feed quality and nutrition? Is milk quality improving or becoming more of an issue? What about components? Are accounts payable ticking up or down? What about your cost of production in general?

Write down where you see improvements and what areas are becoming more of an issue. Think through what you think could have led to the improvements you’ve seen and what could be attributed to the issues. Ask your nutritionist, veterinarian, accountant, or other key advisors for their input, too. Then write down what you think you need to keep doing and what changes you could make in the next year to build on improvements and to solve challenges. It could be related to animal health, cow comfort, herd productivity, crop production, feeding strategies, farm profitability, or even employee-related matters. Anything that relates to your farm business is fair game to evaluate.

Prioritize Your Ideas

After you have reflected on the past year and written down the ideas you have for the coming year, prioritize those ideas. What is the most important thing you want to make sure you keep doing next year? What is the most important thing you need to change next year? Ask your key advisors what they think the most important things are. Based on your thought process and their input, rank your ideas to identify the top five things you are going to do to build on accomplishments and address any areas of improvement in the coming year.

After you have done that reflection and planning, don’t stop there. Make sure you take those top five things and put them in a place where they will continue to be in your line of sight throughout the coming year. Share them with your family and with your employees. Provide a copy to your key advisors. Ask them to remind you and help you stay accountable to that list. Going through the planning process is futile unless you implement what is in your plan.

Celebrate Your Blessings

As you take stock on the year gone by, don’t forget to celebrate your blessings. This past year was filled with uncertainty – in the milk price, input costs, interest rates, inflation, and even in the weather. But there is a lot we can celebrate, too. Despite an extended period this spring with no rain, most areas of Pennsylvania saw a decent harvest this fall. Milk prices have started to come up from the very low levels this summer, and next year’s prices look slightly better than the five-year average.  Feed costs have finally started to moderate, and margins have improved dramatically from earlier this year.

Aside from the business dynamics, there are so many blessings we should celebrate this season – the blessings of our families, our friends, our farms, and our community. The chance to work alongside our family members and our children carrying on a legacy that has been in many of our families for generations before us. The ability to enjoy nature and the seasons of the year in a way that most never get to experience. The opportunity to witness the miracle of life every day and to be providers for a hungry and growing world.

The greatest blessing we all can celebrate this season is our faith. Thousands of years ago on Christmas Eve, Jesus was born. Even then, God knew that none of us were perfect, and we all needed His grace and forgiveness to thrive in a broken world. As we look forward to celebrating the Christmas season, let’s all take stock in the blessings we share as we work to strengthen our families, our farms, and our businesses. Wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday season, on behalf of the entire Center team.

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