Farm Viability Dairy Teams: Making a Difference for Dairy

New York’s dairy educators are knowledgeable, committed and passionate about what they do.  Farm Viability’s Topic Specific Team (TST) program is helping them work directly with farmers to do a “deep dive” on subjects that are critical for farms in their regions to address.

Over the last few years, the Farm Viability TST program has picked up steam as educators from NOFA-NY, county extension offices and regional dairy and livestock teams have integrated the program into their approach. The idea is simple, educators identify a topic that is of strong interest to the dairy farmers in the region. They make a commitment to work with those farmers on that topic. Discussion groups can be used, but at least two opportunities for individual discussion about information specific to their farm must be part of the plan. The budget is based on the number of farms that commit to the program.  Work should be completed within 15 months.

As of November 1, nearly 200 farms were being actively supported by the project.

At Farm Viability, we’ve been excited to see the work progress and it has made us interested in exploring other learning models to support New York’s dairy farmers.

Short descriptions of the work being done follow. 

Supporting Organic Dairies
Dairy Transitions Projects 1 and 2, NOFA-NY
The first project worked with 7 dairy farms to help them understand the certification process, plan for the necessary changes to comply and apply for certification. Of the 7 farms supported, 3 made it through the process and began selling organic milk. The farms that did not certify either could not afford the cost of organic grain while in the certification process, and/or could not find a processor for an organic product. The second project provided one on consultation to 6 farms. 3 farms were successful in completing the certification application with 1 additional farm planning to submit in the future. Due to market constraints, no organic processors are currently taking on new farmers . The first project completed in 2017, the second project completed in May 2018.

Organic Dairy Grazing Project, NOFA-NY This project works directly with fifteen farms, to create and/or improve grazing plans. Realistic assessments of cost/benefits of infrastructure improvements such as fencing and field conditions are also being discussed and evaluated. Additionally, three regional peer groups are being created to allow the farms to build their own advisory networks and continue to receive dairy grazing expertise as a group. Project completed in May 2018.

Organic Dairy Managing for Success.  CCE Cortland County This project focused on enrolling organic dairy farms in the Cornell Dairy Farm Business Summary program (DFBS).The DFBS is a valuable business management tool to help farms look at their financial data. While the tool has value on its own, it is even more powerful when benchmarks can be created.  The original goal was to enroll enough organic dairies in the DFBS so that organic benchmarks could be created. Although this was not attained, the project did provide direct support to 8 farms and helped them make strategic use of their data. Project completed  in June 2018.

Improving Business Management
Business Management Action Teams 1-4, Pro-Dairy, Cornell, 
20 farms were enrolled in one of two new BMATs to improve their business analysis and decision-making skills, resulting in improvements in their businesses and long-term viability. Farms were enrolled in the Dairy Profit Monitor program, and provided direct support. They met twice in-person with their farm groups during the first year to review their businesses, set goals for improvement, and reported on progress on those goals. The outcomes were improved business performance and decision-making skills for these dairy managers and owners. For one participant, the analysis and discussions around both the financial performance and management strategies of their operation has given them the tools to begin their long overdue succession planning process. The first project completed late in 2018. A second wave of 24 farms were enrolled to participate in two teams focused on the same topic. It is scheduled to complete in March 2019.

Improving Management of Hispanic
Employees on Dairy Farms, WNY Dairy and Field Crops Team
This project is working with six dairy farms to improve their Hispanic employee management. The farms are being educated as a group on broad topics, then provided direct support on their top three action items.  Employee surveys have been taken to measure the current organizational commitment, with the hope is that a post survey shows improvements. Employee turn-over information was also collected. Typical action items include improving communication, helping employees understand their job descriptions, career paths etc. The project will complete in May 2019.

Helping Farms Improve Lameness
Linking Lying Time and Lameness, CCE Dairy and Field Crops Team, 2 Projects
This project worked with ten farms. Inexpensive activity monitors were purchased for the project leaders to use to assess lying time on each farm.  Results were discussed with each farm and suggestions of modest improvements were made. Most participating farms indicated that they became more aware of risk factors for lameness in general, and specific things to watch for on their own dairies.  The herd specific data presented offered valuable feedback on ways they can improve their specific situation, rather than just broad industry recommendations. This will make future changes to their operation more successful because the recommendations are tailored to their operation and management. The first project completed late in 2018. An additional 12 farmers have been enrolled to focus on the same topic. It is slated to complete in June 2019.

Increasing dairy farm viability by reducing lameness rates, CCE Oneida County
This project enrolled 5 farms in a program to reduce lameness rates. A combination of group education and on-farm visits has been used. Farms were taught locomotion scoring techniques and provided deep understanding on the factors that can cause lameness. Action plans were developed and the project leader continues to support implementation. The project completed late in 2018.

Helping Farms Become Active Participants in the F.A.R.M. Program
Management Protocols, Record Keeping, Cow Comfort and Animal Health, NNY Dairy and Field Crops Team, 2 projects
This project enrolled 16 farms to help prepare for active participation in the National F.A.R.M. program. Each farm participated in an on-farm evaluation which included an interview, document review, animal and facility observations.  At the conclusion of the last evaluation all data was aggregated to provide regional values (all data) as well as individual farm data. Each farm received a report detailing what was observed on their farm and how this compared to regional values. Each farm also received recommendations specific to their farm. Additional direct support was provided to help farms implement recommended changes. The first project competed late in 2018, the second project has enrolled an additional 15 farms . It will complete in September 2019.

Precision Feed Management
Using forage quality to improve the corn silage (CS) hybrid selection process on dairy farms, CCE Dairy and Field Crops Team,
This project enrolled 21 farms in three groups to learn how to use the differences in fiber digestibility of CS hybrids grown on their farm to select for higher performing hybrids in the future.  Team meetings were held to review the overall results, and Extension specialists met individually with each of the farms to discuss the results of their analysis.  Based on the results, educators were able to provide specific management recommendations for each farm. This project completed late in 2018. A second project working with ten Madison County farmers has just begun.

This article appears in the 2018 Annual Report of the New York Farm Viability Institute (NYFVI) and is published here with permission. The NYFVI is a nonprofit grant making organization funded by the State of New York. It seeks to fund projects that improve the economic viability of New York’s farmers. Since 2005 it has invested over $11 million dollars in 159 research and education projects to support New York’s dairy and field crop farmers.

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