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Starting July 10, 48 committed professionals from companies and ad agencies put day-to-day activities on hold for three days to participate in the "2005 Dairy Food Systems Tour." The Colorado tour was sponsored by Dairy Herd Management (DHM) magazine and the Food Systems Insider, two of the communications vehicles in Vance Publishing's new Food360 Division portfolio.

"The objective of the Tour was to provide participants with an opportunity to experience the dairy food chain," says Stan Erwine, national sales manager and associate publisher of DHM. "The goal was to help marketers better understand and respond to the challenges and opportunities a more closely aligned food system represents."

Dave Brudvig, director of sales for Calf-Tel, visits dairies frequently as part of his monthly routine. Still, he sees tours like this as an important "opportunity in continuing education."

Continuing education was the theme for industry veterans like Brudvig as well as other participants who know the industry but don't get on farms much, along with those who have never set foot on a dairy.

"As close as I am to the industry, the tour gave me so much insight," says Robin Salverson, marketing communications specialist at Westfalia Surge.

For everyone who missed the tour but is interested in getting smarter, here are a few of the lessons learned on the tour. Think of this as distance learning.

Lesson #1

Empire Dairy in Wiggins, Colo., was one of the stops on the first day. It has 3,500 cows in free-stalls and a double 60 parallel parlor yet continues to plan for growth, according to Norm Dinis, son of the dairy's founder. Dinis said, "Expansion is how we deal with inflation."

Frank Dugan, national and international sales director for Vettec Inc., who brought two of his salespeople for the learning opportunity, says, "The tour allowed us to view trends in a quickly evolving industry. As dairies grow and consolidate, decision-making changes."

Dugan, who was on the "Know Your Buyer Better Tour" of large Kansas dairies in 2003, said bio-security was more evident than two years before.

Along with size comes new levels of sophistication. Chris McDonald, partner in the law firm of Shook, Hardy & Bacon L.L.P., said: "What struck me was the sophistication of these operations. These folks could be running any kind of business you can think of."

With growth also come specialization and integration, and that creates new opportunities. For example, Kirt Espenson formed E-6 Calf Ranch in Gill, Colo., three years ago and was feeding 200 calves. Today he is custom raising more than 13,000 calves and using that volume along with sophisticated record-keeping to increase efficiencies, lower costs and add value.

E-6 is the low-cost feeder but has also integrated advanced technology into the operation. It's using sophisticated EID to save data entry -- to scan rather than write. E-6 provides a report every Tuesday that gives dairies feedback on what they are doing so they can improve.

Lesson #2

As dairies get larger, some of the key employees have Spanish as their first language, and for many of the workers it is their only language. Chris and Mary Kraft, owners of Badger Creek Dairy, an 1,800-cow dry-lot operation in Fort Morgan, Colo., believe direct communication with their Spanish-speaking employees is important, so for the past couple of years they've been going to Mexico to take an intensive Spanish language program.

At another dairy, a Spanish-speaking veterinarian is utilized for training sessions.

Debbie Preston, who runs Galeton Dairy, a 2,600-cow dairy with a double 35 parlor in Eaton, Colo., says all of her managers read both English and Spanish. She suggests to her suppliers that she would welcome training protocol in Spanish.

Lesson #3

Greg Goodell, DVM, The Dairy Authority, which is the name of his veterinary practice, suggested that companies communicate with veterinarians before introducing information to the dairy producer. He said that the dairies value veterinarians' recommendations, and if the veterinarians don't get the information first, it's easy for them to be blindsided.

The dairies agreed with Dr. Goodell's statement.

Mary Kraft of Badger Creek Dairy said, "The veterinarian is incredibly important to our purchasing decisions. We make sure he is in our meetings with drug reps along with our herdsmen to improve communication."

Galeton Dairy's Preston said, "We learn a lot from our vets."

Preston had some additional suggestions of things company representatives should understand in planning their selling efforts. She makes these three points:

  • You will rarely see the owner directly. As the operations get bigger, more of the decision-making is delegated to middle managers.
  • Dairies need the product information only once. They are eager to get new information but don't need more than one visit to make a point. However, if salespeople have management information that addresses management practices or protocols that help the dairy capture value, managers are open to more visits.
  • Call first. Today's dairy managers are busy and may not have time to spend with you if they don't know in advance you're coming.

Lesson #4

Suburban creep puts dairies right in the middle of expensive subdivisions. That's why odor and fly management are important goals of dairies like Badger Creek. Well-run dairies are very sensitive to building goodwill with their neighbors. The Krafts are currently participating in a Colorado pilot project with companies such as Ball Aerospace with the goal of improving the environment.

Chris Kraft says one of the problems is that people envision a dairy farm to be 20 cows grazing in an idyllic pasture. So when they see a big dairy they are taken aback. That's why the Krafts work hard to make the environment pleasing to their neighbors.

For example, Badger Creek Dairy is a stone's throw from housing developments but rarely receives any negative feedback from the neighbors. That's because Badger Creek's management practices provide a dairy environment that is virtually odorless. After an hour on the dairy, tour participants couldn't recall seeing a fly. One participant remarked that he saw more flies at the lunch at an events center than he saw all morning long at the various dairies.

Some of the interaction with the public has nothing to do with physical proximity. Colorado State University's Dr. Temple Grandin gave her informed views on animal welfare issues and concerns.

McDonald's was the first restaurant chain to audit for animal welfare, and Dr. Grandin was hired to work with the chain. She says activists pushed McDonald's to take steps to ensure animal welfare, and she sees 1999 as a tipping point in the public's awareness of animal welfare issues. She said animal welfare is important to dairy owners because cows do feel fear and pain, and the resulting stress costs milk production.

Lesson #5

Every link in the food chain needs to be aware of what goes on throughout the chain. Never was that more apparent than during a presentation by Tom Gruenberger, dairy/frozen category manager at King Soopers/City Market. Gruenberger told the group that he gets calls all the time asking whether milk contains antibiotics or hormones. Tour participants were able to give him emphatic assurance that milk does not have antibiotic residues because if it did the bottler would reject it. It was a clear case of the person on the firing line needing information that was readily available from people in other links in the chain -- but getting that information to that person doesn't happen without communication.

The tour was interesting because it facilitated communication at all levels -- producers, veterinarians, processors, educators, cooperatives and retailers -- according to Tom Jenkinson of the Western Dairy Farmers' Promotion Association and Dairy Management Inc. (DMI).

As one tour participant commented, "Milk is milk. But when we market it right, people will buy more."

Class dismissed! AM

Paul Welsh is a principal in RelationTips, an advertising consulting firm in Leawood, Kan.

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