Women in Dairy share solutions to challenges facing the sector

More than 100 delegates were challenged and inspired at the second annual Women in Dairy conference, staged at Sixways Stadium, Worcester on 28 September.

Themed Resilience in Adversity, chaired by RABDF council member, Di Wastenage and organised by RABDF and Promar International a Genus plc company, with support from AHDB Dairy, a high profile line up of speakers shared some of their solutions to managing the raft of challenges within the sector.

Do you have that true grit and resilience to continue when times become difficult and it appears that everything is against you? Do you know who you are and where you want to be? More importantly, how are you going to get there? came the questions from Saviour Associates, Heather Wildman.

“I was bowled over by the stark difference in the attitudes and pride in our UK farmers compared with those I met whilst studying influencing and motivating change on my 2012 Nuffield Farming Scholarship travels across the Americas, Europe, Australia and New Zealand,” she said.

“This difference led me to questioning why? Was it the extra hours of sunlight? No, at the time they were all in severe drought and experiencing extreme hardship and were very envious of our guaranteed rain. Did they receive more public, industry and government support? No, many received little if any at all and all equally were having to address the increasing gap between farming and consumer awareness, knowledge and respect.

“So what was the difference? They had chosen to farm, it was not an expectation. Before taking over the family business they travelled, they worked and learnt in different businesses and industries – accountants, vets, lawyers, computer programmers, milk companies with most working on at least two other farms before coming back home.

“So why did this make them more resilient? They had new skills, they had built up capital and generally owned a property in their own name. They had built up a network of skilled professional people. They understood business. They also knew how long they would be managing the farm for before handing over to the next generation.

“They had a vision, they had a plan, the skill set and the network to make it happen, so when times became hard through either drought, disease, debt, death or divorce they still felt the pain but they never complained, moaned, blamed others or gave up.

“They revisited the vision, reviewed the strategy and started again, heads up, smiling and focused, knowing where they were going, how they were going to get there and who and what they needed to help them achieve it.”

Women particularly can offer so much more to the industry, said AHDB chief executive, Jane King. “You have a positive, can do attitude, are prepared to think outside the box, challenge the status quo by asking the difficult questions, and are prepared to learn the lessons from the past but are certainly not bound and constrained by the legacy of the past.

“I see groups like Women in Dairy and individuals as ‘agents of change’. What we have here are multi skilled, agile, flexible people, entrepreneurs, collaborators, communicators with the confidence to be decisive, to take risks and to do it what you do with the consumer at the forefront in your mind.

“It’s been proven time and again that women make superb leaders, able to set the direction for others to follow, to be positive role models. Good leaders know how to create the right lens through which their teams view the world. The emotional intelligence, personal awareness and social skills of many farming women is making a huge difference every day on farm and within the wider industry.

“More gender diversity is coming in to the industry via new entrants. The younger generation are looking to their role models like you and can see this is a dynamic industry with lots to offer in terms of careers and jobs. There is a richness of routes in from milking with the latest technology, managing a herd or a team, working as a vet or within the wider supply chain.

“Women currently make up 28% of the British agricultural workforce and the number of women running farms has steadily increased to just over 25,000. Women are undoubtedly on the rise in senior positions within key farming organisations too like the NFU with Minette Batters as deputy president.”

She added: “I’m really excited by the fact that with Brexit the industry is on the brink of some pivotal moments. We can shrink from it and not grab the moment or we can seize the opportunities and make the most of it. Don’t give in to self-doubt. Continue to be strong, be different and stand out from the crowd.”

Setting out a vision, ambition and strategy is crucial for any business and AHDB Dairy’s was done with significant input from staff and importantly informed by views from dairy farmers and the industry, explained its strategy director, Amanda Ball. “We’re currently finalising our strategy to take us to 2020, which subject to board approval will go out for consultation early December.

“Last year we heard about a desire for more market development activity and earlier this year our board agreed to upweight our investment to help develop a strategy for long term sustainable consumption in the domestic and international markets, where AHDB has significant expertise.

“Another clear message from our last consultation was around duplication of effort. So if we as AHDB Dairy, reduce resource in some areas to provide headroom for market development work, we will need others to champion areas we back off from and embrace the help of those who fed back to us.

“So what would be different this year? We would see a broadening of our horizons in market development and a narrowing of our focus in technical and farm business performance. Continuing to equip levy payers with the information and tools to grow, compete and be sustainable will remain at the heart of our strategy.”

Amanda concluded: “It’s in dairy farmers’ best interests to get best return from their levy investment. Women in Dairy can help realise this by connecting with their AHDB team, seeking out levy funded work and inspiring others to do the same.”

Dairy business profitability is down to efficiency, not yield per cow, said Barclays national agricultural strategy director, Oliver McEntyre. “The industry is yield obsessed when in fact producers should be focusing on margin, not yield.

“The top 25% of dairy farmers achieve 45% higher gross margins per cow than the bottom 25%. Even with current milk prices, that’s an average £450 more per cow per year.

“Yes times are tough, however try not to worry about the milk price,” he said. “Instead be proactive and try to focus on the things that you can control,” he said.

“Move out from being what’s termed a ‘survivor’ or a ‘doer’, people who have a hands on role, day to day focus and either regard higher prices or working harder as a solution to improving profitability. Move in to being a ‘manager’. There operators see increasing scale and efficiency as a solution to improving profitability, they take professional advice for example from vets and breeding companies, they have a higher engagement with primary buyers and have an evolving focus as skilled managers, then finance managers and finally people managers.”

Turning to succession just 40% of farmers have a plan. “It’s a very tough subject to broach yet it is vital. Put together a five, 10 and 15-year strategic plan and introduce an independent person around the table to open up the discussion. Succession provides that vital empowerment, demonstrates to the next generation they are trusted, allows the current generation to step back and the next one to step forward.”

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