Rearview Mirror: Beware the ‘tight margin’ underpass approaching

Editor’s Update,

by Dave Natzke

As U.S. House Democrats leave Washington, D.C., and the nation’s Capitol gets smaller and smaller in their rearview mirrors, the hindsight of a full year probably also brings your 2010 dairy year into better focus. The view has something for everyone.

If you’re a “glass half full” kind of person, you have a lot to look back on. Milk prices were much better than 2009, and dairy export totals were great. Your communication skills improved markedly, especially with your banker, who now knows all your kids – by age and name. You met a lot more nice dairy farmers with common issues, and they all like the same beer. You learned more about dairy ration ingredients and prices, and maybe even a little about “marketing.” You turned the odometer over on your pickup truck.

If you’re a “glass half empty” kind of person, you also have plenty to hang your hat on. The economic balm of 2010 didn’t cover all the financial pain of 2009. You watched everybody else increase cow numbers and milk production as the year progressed. A lot of people talked about volatility, but it didn’t go away; and Congress pushed dairy policy discussions into 2011 (or beyond). You gained weight and developed diabetes from eating all the chocolate in your banker’s candy dish while he studied your financial records. Your lender now knows all your cows – by age and name. You’re sick of reading about M&Ms (marketing and margins). You turned the odometer over on your pickup truck – again.

Don’t stare in the rearview mirror too long, though. There’s big challenges directly out your 2011 windshield. Like driving a 13-foot truck under a 13-foot underpass, the margins during the first quarter or two could be really tight. The global legal tender is corn, and if you’re buying, you’re paying. Figure out now if you can make it through the “tight margin” underpass, or if there are optional routes. Putting the pedal to the metal and hoping you get through probably won’t work.

Make it, and the second half of the year should be better, based on information from dairy financial map readers.

Perhaps my age is showing, but the two biggest revelations for me in 2010 had more to do with people than policy.

First, in what has become virtually a day-to-day pissing match and nearly everything has a political component, I think I could identify about a eight young women who I would trust to fix most things “dairy” (I wouldn’t wish federal milk marketing order reform on anybody). They’re fueled by a combination of brains and passion for the dairy industry – driven by attitude as much as aptitude. I’ll refrain from naming them for fear of putting them in an unwanted spotlight. But maybe more entrenched dairy leaders should be looking in their rearview mirror, too.

Second, I went to a Wisconsin Badger/Minnesota Gopher football game in October, and was reminded of what is was like to be back on the UW-Madison campus I attended 25 years ago. I met a group of students at Babcock House, a cooperative house made up of mostly farm kids. Today, Babcock House is co-ed, with about 25 farm women and men living in the same house. They have a cumulative grade point of 3.64, and are extremely active on campus. (I was on academic probation for most of my college career, was extremely active at watering holes, and it would have taken me and two classmates adding our grade points together to get to 3.64.)

Then, I went to the football game and saw the student section. They misbehaved, were vulgar and crude. On the other hand, they were creative, enthusiastic and fun. Given their current job prospects, if they can maintain those three things, I’m all for it.

Sure, I question their work ethic sometimes, but I believe the future will be well-served by the young people (who usually don’t appear on reality television programs), if they are given the opportunity.

While “efficiency” is on the agenda of many dairy organization meetings this fall and winter, there’s at least one area those organizations could get a lot more efficient – producer education opportunities.

I get it that dairy organizations generate money at many of these events through registration fees, renting trade show space and sponsorship fees. These funds help finance important programs and organization operations to benefit their members.

But if the recent past has taught us anything, it’s that duplication of effort and resources – time and money – is wasteful. Yet, I get more press releases and calendar listings for meetings and seminars serving the same regional audiences with the same topics and speakers, chasing virtually the same corporate sponsors.

Dairy organization leaders could do well to sit down with other organizations serving the same region and audience, planning seminars and events that avoid this duplication. How many groups, for example, need separate “social media” training sessions? I’m all a-Twitter.

Undoubtedly, political and personality differences create barriers to collaboration. But as we’ve witnessed in current dairy policy discussions, many more producers are in the same car – looking in the same mirrors and windshields – with their neighbors than ever before. Dairy organization education planners should do the same. It’s about time – and money.


• To offer your own opinion or response, e-mail Dave Natzke, national editorial director, DairyBusiness Communications, e-mail: