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Farmers Share Friendship and Knowledge at Dairy Profit Discussion Groups

By Kathy Barrett
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard farmers say after a dairy meeting or event that the best part of the program was talking to the other farmers over lunch or during the break.  It’s clear that farmers find tremendous value in talking to other farmers about their practices and experiences on the farm. The Dairy Profit Discussion group program is built on that simple concept: farmers gain invaluable knowledge from other farmers.

Bonnie Collins (center), farm business management educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension, facilitates the Women Farming Today discussion group in Oneida County.
Photo by: Kathy Barrett


Discussion groups have taken off acrossNew YorkStatewith over 40 groups formed and more than 500 farmers participating. This has been a tough year for the dairy industry, yet a record number of farmers have attended Dairy Profit Discussion Groups.  Clearly they are getting something important from these groups. A survey of farmers participating in discussion groups indicated that being able to sit across the table from other farmers who were experiencing similar challenges encouraged them to make changes that improved their profitability. The continuous interaction allows farmers to hear what others are doing on their farms and follow the results and impacts of those activities. Talking through ideas and decisions with other farmers enables them to have more confidence in their own decision-making process.
So what is a Dairy Profit Discussion Group? It’s a group of about 10-12 farmers who have something in common who meet on a regular basis to discuss their farms. The commonality might be farm size, production practice (e.g. organic, grazing) or stage of career (e.g. young farmers). The key is that the farms have enough in common that the discussion is pertinent to each farmer, with ideas that can be implemented on their farms.
A skilled facilitator manages the discussion and administration of the group, doing the leg work needed to make sure the group has what it needs for a fruitful discussion. Dairy Profit Discussion groups usually have agriprofessionals serve as the facilitator. Most often extension educators serve this role, but veterinarians, nutritionists, financial advisors and crop consultants are also involved with different discussion groups. Several groups have a couple of agribusiness folks who share the role of facilitator.
Discussion groups are small by design, so that discussion can be informal and uninhibited.  Small groups also allow the group members to get to know each other. Time and again farmers have said the professional relationships they build via the groups are extremely important.
It’s important that the group be self-directed, and that the ideas for discussion topics come from the group. Groups have discussed just about every topic under the sun. Some have focused on production types of topics, such as milking systems, calf nutrition or transition cow management. Others have participated in the Cornell Dairy Farm Business Summary or the Cornell Dairy Profit Monitor program, and have used this information to benchmark where their business is at and monitor progress.
How the group approaches a chosen topic is driven by the subject matter and the preferences of the group. A resource person might be invited to join the meeting, provide some information and then sit at the table for the discussion. Tours of farms doing a specific practice or technology are always a favorite activity. Sometimes the tours are of group member’s farms, and sometimes of an unrelated farm that is doing something of interest. Overnight trips to visit farms or other groups can be especially valuable. The ride in the van gives group members time to discuss things in depth and really get to know each other. Meeting up with farmers from another group adds new ideas and personalities to the mix. The unifying theme for all these activities, whether it is a simple group discussion, resource person, financial benchmarking or farm visits, is the shared knowledge and experience of the farmers.
Farmers join discussion groups for the exchange of ideas and the experience that comes only from farming. They use the groups to learn about new technologies, recent research and management strategies, but through the prism of real world, hands-on experience.
The Dairy Profit Discussion Group program is funded by the New York Center for Dairy Excellence.
Kathy Barrett is the Dairy Profit Discussion Group program’s director with the Cornell PRO-DAIRY program.  She may be reached at 607.229.4357 or kfb3@cornell.edu.

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