My childhood was blissful. Warm sunny afternoons building fence in the back pasture, chilly winter nights feeding (and cuddling with) soft fuzzy calves, crisp fall mornings waking up to bring in the herd for milking - I wouldn't replace it for the world. In fact, I have discovered that the same skills and values that go into a job well done on a farm yield fruitful returns in the business world as well.
Lesson number 1: Pump yourself up before working hard
My Dad and I had a little mantra that we would chant together before heading down to the barn or out to fix a tractor, or the manure spreader. We'd make fists and tap them together and sing "we're rough and tough and hard to bluff - yeah!" and one of us would usually follow with a sobering "It's a tough job but someone's got to do it." This is true in any worthy task and it pays to reflect on the value and effort that you bring to the table - whether balancing spreadsheets or cleaning gutters.
Lesson 2: If you won't do it, don't expect it to get done
This one is definitely apparent for any small business owner. I saw this lesson reinforced time and again as my Dad would wake himself up at 3 a.m. to run down and check on a cow in labor. Often times his efforts would result in one or two lives saved, or at the least, an easier delivery for a new mom and baby. I think of those late nights when deadlines feel as though they are looming over head waiting to flatten me or when my brain is so taxed and slow I can't fix another comma. I stand up, stretch my legs, and remind myself of my end goal- not a new baby calf but definitely something new, something with potential, something worth getting up at 3 am for.
Lesson 3: Every industry changes and you can get left behind.
Even in an industry as age old as dairy, new technology can leave old timers in the dust. Adapt or fail is the key and this is true whether you are coaxing milk from Holsteins or marketing a product to the masses. Changes can be mapped through the agricultural methods of dairy farming; from the manure spreader versus the pit, the stone silo versus harvester, conventional farming versus organic, a farmer who fails to maneuver the trends may find himself at the end of his row. In the same way, the corporate environment is constantly adopting new practices to reach it's aims. A wise dairy technician (that was my official title) and a wise professional gets on board the change wagon.
Lesson 4: Work efficiently but risky.
This can also be phrased as the old adage "a stitch in time saves nine". Both farmers and professionals are racing the clock. Often times while milking I was racing the early arrival time of the milkman making his rounds in his bulk milk truck to pick up our gracious bovines' yields. My tactic was to save steps between cows, make sure I milked the slow milkers first, and plan the clean up at the end to ensure I was out of the milkman's way. Efficiency was tantamount but not to the detriment of the cows or myself - that was a hard one to learn as sometimes in my hurry I would slip on the slick walk and end up upside down in the gutter - losing both time and dignity. Efficiency is still in demand in my workday and I do heed the cautionary tale of the slick walk and a fast pace. Proof read quickly, but proof read well...or you might end up in the gutter. (feeding calves (one pail or two?)
Lesson 5: Happy cows give more milk. Erm... keep your producers happy and healthy.
Whether it was my Dad's calming tones while approaching a skittish heifer or my Mom's heavy hand when doling out extra servings of sweet smelling corn silage, keeping your star producers healthy and happy was a clear goal. Now I find myself on the other end, as the figurative cow, and I see the wisdom of this treatment. When my company promotes wellness, offers benefits and options to keep me engaged and excited in our work, and encourages my growth, I am a happy cow.
Lesson 6: A little marketing never hurt anyone.
When I was eighteen, my parents decided to sell the farm that I grew up on and "retire" to the "city" (move from 15 miles away from the 1,400 populace town center to only 3 miles away from the town center), and while this was crushing to hear, I also understood that it was very important to their futures that the sale go well. It was at this time that I saw my typically humble parents be their own marketers. They found experts to give them advice on an auction and herd sale and shouted it to the world. There was a lot to brag about on that farm, the herd was impeccable, and anyone who came away from the sale with a cow had an excellent addition to their stock. The neighbors knew it, my parents knew it, the buyers knew it. What I realized is that whether you are promoting your brand, your industry, or your self, keep promoting!
Lesson 7: Your industry peers are your best "frenemies"
Wisconsin is America's Dairyland. In the county where I grew up there were (maybe still are) more cows than there are people. When everyone is producing milk, it pays to pay attention to the competition. Both my Mom and Dad are huge proponents of continuing education and even if we had two fresh cows, a broken silo un-loader, and fifteen calves to feed - Dad would do what it took to drive up to his class to hear presentations by agriculture industry experts and talk with neighboring farmers about their strategies. This sharing mentality helped the farming community overall and also allowed Dad to bring home innovative ideas. I see the wisdom of collaborating with industry peers everyday in the corporate world - even when competition is fierce - those who share knowledge end up on top.
Lesson 8: Have a plan.
No business would be successful without a plan, nor is it wise to go through your career without direction. I learned long ago that even small tasks go smoother with a plan. It was a hard lesson to learn from a particularly energetic cow named "Crooked Ear". Yes, I named her. And, yes, she had a crooked ear. She often did not want to come into the barn for milking on warm summer evenings when the pasture was lush and green with food. Instead, she wanted to run around and set a bad example for the other cows. It took me a while to puzzle out her methods of outwitting me (she would hide just beyond a berm in the back of the field) and only a few times did I get to the barn door only to have Dad ask "where's Crooked Ear?" Argh! Back I'd go to the back of the pasture. Finally, I figured out the best way to actually get her to the barn was to bring her in last. That way she got to munch grass longer and I made it to the barn with the whole herd. Happy cows, remember?
9. Being in charge of your schedule can be incredible - but keep a routine
Dairy farming really is a never ending cycle of chores but the silver lining is you can plan WHEN you do those chores. I've been told my grandpa liked a 4 a.m. alarm (or was it 4:30?) to start his milking, whereas my dad preferred a 5:45-6:00 a.m. start. I too appreciate the art of scheduling your own day and have found my "productivity zones". I have also found that I like routine. So do cows. Cows appreciate a set schedule and things run more smoothly when you stick to it - that definitely applies to me and my workday (my similarities to the bovine species seem to be growing.)
Lesson 10: Appreciate the fruits of your labor
We work hard and we play hard. Yes, we would spend sweltering 95+ degree days in the humid haymow, tossing 40 pound bales over our shoulders and shoving them with our knees into the pocket next to the other 1,000 bales we'd shoved that day - but in the night, when the air cooled, we'd light a bonfire and gather around for s'mores and hot dogs, sip cool lemonade and congratulate ourselves on getting the hay in before the big rainstorm expected tomorrow. We need those celebratory bonfires off the farm too. It feels good to pat yourself on the back and recognize the hard work you did. It feels right to acknowledge the time, creativity, and knowledge it took to complete your day's work. Appreciation and celebration, like fresh green hay, makes happy cows.
I miss milking cows nearly every day and am always grateful for the skills and values my parents instilled in me as they serve me well in the business world time and again.