As a first-generation farmer, I’ve always approached dairy farming a little differently than others. Part of that comes from my personality. I love cows, but I am also good with numbers and I tend to think systematically. The combination means that Mar-Bec Dairy has been driven by systems and processes from day one.
And because I didn’t grow up on a farm, there isn’t the pressure of doing things the same way previous generations have. In fact, I heard someone say recently that the most expensive five words on a farm are “That’s what we’ve always done.”
A great example of a lifelong-learning approach to dairy farming is the Food Armor Foundation program. The nonprofit organization brings together veterinarians, dairy farmers and industry experts to provide antimicrobial stewardship education and accreditation services to help safeguard animal, public and environmental health and welfare. The program dates to 2010 and the original What Matters initiative between the Professional Dairy Producers and the Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Association, which addressed antibiotic residues in milk and meat products. That initiative has evolved into a nationwide, customized program that prioritizes education and consistent improvement over regulation.
Food Armor is unique because it doesn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. The same checklist doesn’t apply to every farm. Each participating farm identifies its own priorities and challenges with its veterinarian, whether that’s addressing mastitis in the milking parlor or disease in the calf barn. In partnership, farmers and veterinarians review existing processes, create new protocols and establish appropriate record-keeping systems that can improve animal health, comply with best stewardship practices and, often, yield savings for the farm.
One of the greatest things about farming is that there can be a thousand ways to accomplish the same task. We’re all caring for animals, milking cows and harvesting crops, but we each have the flexibility to do these things in a manner that works for our farm and family.
Food Armor takes the same approach. Taking a focused look at each area gives producers the opportunity to build on what’s working and make adjustments to address shortcomings. It also provides a framework to keep reviewing our protocols and processes with a fresh perspective.
Across the dairy industry, constant improvement is more important than ever because of tight margins, increased regulatory pressures and growing consumer interest in what we do. We need to plan, track, record and measure every aspect of our farms more stringently than before. Thankfully, a new generation of technologies and industry verification and certification programs are available to help with these new expectations.
We have a saying on our dairy: “We do the best we can until we know better; then we do better.” Developing a protocol is the first step, but writing it down isn’t enough. We must set the expectation that all family members and employees follow the processes and continually look for ways to update and improve them. That means asking questions and being open to new ideas. After all, if there’s a mistake in the protocol, we’ll keep making that same mistake over and over. New tests, new technologies and new research means there’s always an opportunity to improve.
As dairy farmers, we have the responsibility to do the best job we can and be transparent about what we do. When we work in partnership with our veterinarians, industry professionals and programs such as Food Armor, we can improve our farms and profitability while building trust with those who enjoy the milk and meat products we produce.
Hallock owns and operates Mar-Bec Dairy near Mondovi, Wis., with his wife, Becky, and son, Jonathon. Hallock is a first-generation dairy farmer who started Mar-Bec Dairy with 40 cows in 1990 and has continued to grow the operation. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a degree in animal science. He is vice president of the Food Armor Foundation board of directors and is a former president and member of the PDPW board of directors.