While I was waiting for cows to return to a pen today, a fellow came into the pen with a belt and a ladder.
    “Broken belt on a fan?” I said.
    “Just one running slow,” he said. “The belt stretches and then it slips and the fan runs slow.”     This is a top-notch dairy, so it is unsurprising they have a system to replace fan belts when fans get slow. In fact, they have systems in place all over the farm to fix other slow fan-like problems, and that is one of the reasons they are so top notch.
    Every dairy has slow fans. How do the best ones fix these problems? The answer is that they have systems. It isn’t just that someone happened to notice a slow fan. And, someone happened to tell someone else. And, someone happened to have a belt in inventory. And, someone just happened to have time that day that the fan got fixed. Success is seldom determined by chance or luck.
    The first thing needed to fix problems is a detection system. For example, perhaps adult cow death rate is a slow fan on your dairy. How do you know this? Well, first you must have a way to count deaths. Not counting means you are not noticing them. Maybe you have too many heifers in inventory because your heifer pregnancy rate is only 20 percent, but if you do not know what your heifer pregnancy rate is, you are not noticing the problem. These examples may sound silly, but in my experience not knowing the farm’s annual death rate or the heifer pregnancy rate is not all that uncommon today. Part of defining the detection system for problems is identifying which problems to look for. We might call those key performance indicators, or KPIs. Defining the KPIs is not always easy, but it is important. KPIs can be developed for about every aspect of your operation from animal health to crops to employee management.
    Once you have decided on which KPIs to monitor, the next step is defining the monitoring system. That means there has to be a way to notice the problem, but then also to record the problem in such a way that the particular KPI can be monitored easily. For example, incidence of calf pneumonia might be an important KPI for your farm, but you cannot monitor it unless individual cases are somehow counted over time, which usually involves writing something down or entering data into a computer. In the feedlot industry, producers may choose different drugs to treat pneumonia because they have data that show lower relapse rates for some drugs used in their feedlots. On dairy farms, calf pneumonia often is not properly recorded. On those farms, the opportunity to examine treatment response or otherwise change prevention or treatment practices may be lost.
    After defining what to measure and how to record it, one needs a simple system to get the data in a format where it is easy to examine results. Farms often create weekly or monthly summary reports. These may be as simple as a form that has a few things written in boxes every week, or it might be a spreadsheet on the computer in the office that has 50 different things recorded every day or every week. The point is to make reports easy so you do not have to plow through a stack of papers or data every time you need to evaluate a slow fan on your dairy. Fortunately, computers are great for compiling data and presenting it in a simple way. For most farms, this is probably the best way to record events. In our veterinary practice we keep a spreadsheet for our farms on regular herd visits. We update the spreadsheet when we are on the farm and send it back to the producer and any other interested parties identified by the farmer. There are about 40 KPIs on there, but one can look over the entire sheet in a few minutes to find those slow fans.
    The next step is to develop standards or goals. To get standards and goals we need to know what is possible. Some standards are easily available. For example, the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Gold Standards list KPIs for calf pneumonia and scours, survival rates, growth rates and reproductive performance. Other standards are hard to find. Your veterinarian is often a source for health and production targets; your nutritionist for production targets, and your financial advisor is a source for financial targets. Top farms do not use their cadre of consultants to do technical work, but instead use their expertise to examine farm performance against standards and goals and then help develop action plans
    Many readers may find all of the above to be obvious. If you feel so, then great work. However, this is not the case on every farm or on every non-farm business and may be one of the reasons why so many businesses fail. In addition, almost any business can improve their methods to fix slow fans. Successful dairy businessmen and women know that luck is for winning the lottery, not for fixing problems.
    Jim Bennett is a dairy veterinarian at Northern Valley Dairy Production Medicine Center in Plainview, Minn. He and his wife, Pam, have four children. Jim can be reached at bennettnvac@gmail.com with comments or questions.