After a long fall of chopping, combining and tilling, my brain started functioning again as it was time to zero in on the books for pre-tax meetings.
    I was not too worried about taxes this year, but I was worried about losing money. I always assumed other dairies were better than we were about controlling costs, and I wanted to know their secrets. I called my daughter, Kia, who gets on a lot of dairies because of her job; she is also on the board of Western Iowa Dairy Alliance, which is a group of dairy farmers and tradespeople who are together for lobbying and promotional purposes.
    I asked Kia if she thought we could get a group of dairymen together to share their cost cutting ideas. She said WIDA needed a winter meeting anyway, and she would run the idea past the other board members. They agreed it would be worth a try, so we did a round table type meeting a few weeks ago in Sheldon, Iowa.
    There was no speaker at all; only a group of dairy producers, white poster board and a request to act as the facilitator to keep the discussion moving. My goal for any meeting I attend is to come away with one good idea to implement. I had no idea how this meeting would go.     
    We had about 20 dairies represented, ranging in size from 60 to 3,000 cows. Kia put four posters on the wall that people could write on. First was what was the best cost cutting idea on their farm; second was what was the biggest challenge on their farm and it could not be milk price; third was what changes were made to increase income; and fourth was share your cost of feed per hundredweight and also share your milk hauling costs.
    Almost everyone came up to the front and wrote something on one or more of the posters. It soon became obvious that the No. 2 poster listing challenges was the most popular. Labor pay and supply topped the list. We decided that labor was the elephant in the room and we would leave that item for last so we made sure we covered the other good ideas.
    As we went through each line item idea, it became apparent to me that this meeting was different than any dairy meeting I have ever been to. The mood in the room was so genuine. We all wanted to help each other and were not afraid to share our problems and ideas. There was no pride left in any of us as we knew as an industry we face many challenges.
    On the cost cutting poster, we were all looking to see if someone posted a blockbuster idea, but there were no blockbusters. Tied in with that was feed cost per cwt. of milk, and the three that shared and/or knew that cost were all between $6.49 and $6.52. We were hoping someone would put $5.62 or something so we could pick his brain as to how he did it.
    Two other ideas did surface that were not cost cutting, but helpful nonetheless. One dairyman uses an app on his phone for employee scheduling. All the managers and employees on the farm can view it from their own phones, so there are no misunderstandings about who should be working when.
    Another farmer carried a high deductible on his farm insurance policy, except he opted for dollar one glass coverage on all farm implements. It is amazing how many skid loader and manure spreader tractor windows get broke every year, and this way insurance paid for new glass and installation. There were many other good ideas shared at the meeting, and as I said earlier, we saved the elephant in the room until last.
    We took a five-minute break and told the room if they had had enough discussion to feel free to leave. As people got up to stretch their legs, I was not sure how many would come back.
    After four minutes, I realized every single person had sat back down. Ready to begin again and still engaged. We decided to tackle the issue with the most tally marks: Labor.
    Everyone struggles with labor, finding it, keeping them and paying them fairly. We shared our pay scales and benefit packages with each other, along with how we sourced labor.
    Then Johnny, a well-respected dairyman, started talking. Now Johnny is a cheerleader in a fullback’s body, a glass three-quarter full kind of guy. Johnny said we all need to greet every employee every day with a smile, ask them how things are going, and what can we do to help them get the work done efficiently. If we do that and more for our employees, Johnny said our elephant problem will disappear. Everyone in the room knew Johnny was right, yet we all are thinking of walking in the barn and seeing the broken skid loader glass and wanting to blame somebody, anybody.
    I think the rest of us should hire Johnny to make a circuit to each of our dairies every day to cheer our employees on. At the end of the day, we did not accomplish much on the cost cutting side. We did accomplish a lot in terms of networking, sharing ideas and building up our spirits. I would recommend it to any group.
    Vander Kooi operates a 1,800-cow, 4,500 acre farm with his son, Joe, and daughter-in-law, Rita, near Worthington, Minn. Send him feedback at Follow him on Instagram, @davevanderkooi.