Karen Bohnert

I recently traveled home from American Jersey Cattle Association (AJCA) board meetings in Columbus, Ohio. At the meetings, and while attending the virtual annual meetings of the two Jersey organizations — AJCA and the National All Jersey (NAJ) — I was reminded of the incredible importance of leadership.

During the annual meeting of the AJCA, we reviewed the history of the breed and of the organizations, and one decade really stood out. In the 1970s, the two Jersey organizations were nearly dying, and it was the steadfast, solid leadership of those board members that allowed the organizations to continue on.

Leaders like my dear friend Joe Lyon from Toledo, Iowa, who served as president of both AJCA (1969 to 1972) and NAJ (1976 to 1984) and led with his heart and a deep-rooted passion for the Jersey cow. Lyon played a very crucial role in the development of NAJ’s cornerstone program, Equity, that has helped his fellow Jersey breeders get component pricing. This program still stands strong nearly 50 years later.

Because of iconic leaders like Lyon, improvement and growth followed the Jersey organizations and breeders throughout the United States.

History has a way of repeating itself. We need leaders that illustrate character and value at home, and who are willing to showcase those qualities in their communities and in our industry. These leaders need to push for improvement and growth to lay the groundwork for future generations to come.

The sad reality, that half of our dairy farms have departed in the last 15 years, reminds us that we must use this stark fact to strategize on how to move forward. With fewer dairy farmers, there are fewer people to rise up and serve on dairy boards and committees.

So just when you think someone else can do this or that you don’t have the time, I challenge you to think differently and commit your time to serving. Many of those that serve on boards are the same people that also sit on local school or church boards, help with their school’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA), teach Sunday school, and so much more.

Don’t let your age, gender, race, farm size, or cow breed deter you from leading. When I first started as a director of the AJCA board, I was the only woman, although other women have served before me. Now, we have three women on the board. My fellow board members all milk Jerseys (it’s a prerequisite to be on the AJCA board), but the number they milk ranges from 80 to 4,000. The size does not matter. The willingness to listen, learn, and lead does.

Leadership benefits others in various ways, and I often wonder if Joe ever knew just how impactful those long board meetings far away from his farm would be. My guess is that he, and others that served in the 1970s, let their “why” — the need for component pricing — drive their willingness to serve.

Rising up to serve and lead undoubtedly benefits others. But leadership also teaches us a lot about ourselves, or at least in my case it has.

It has taught me the importance of listening, speaking up, and the power of brainstorming. My service as a director has also reminded me that sometimes you are just going to disagree with others, and differences of opinion are not necessarily bad. Sitting around the board table, you must remember the common thread and let that “why” strategically drive growth and development.

Serving on the board has also been a reminder to my children that their mother can do more than fold laundry and cook dinner. She is more than a chauffeur and a calf feeder. She does more than write stories and balance budgets. In fact, her ability to communicate and understand budgets is what makes her an asset to organizations.

And really, I’m blessed because every day I watch my husband lead a team of employees to help make our dairy run successfully. We have hiccups and challenges like the rest of you, but I’m amazed at his ability to delegate and trust that he has taught them well to do the task given.

This past spring, I reiterated to Scott that we have a great team of employees. Often the owners were busy with fieldwork, and the team of employees and our children were tending to all the cattle work. This showcases a good leader, who demonstrates solid communication, firm directions and expectations, and hands over trust.

How lucky is it that our children get to see the qualities of leadership lived out daily. I hope it fuels them to get involved in the community and in the industry in the future.

I challenge you all to get outside your comfort zone. I remember being a tad scared to run for the AJCA board, but I was also reminded that if it doesn’t scare you, you don’t want it enough. Lead with your “why” — our industry will be better because of it.

Around the Kitchen Table is a regular column in Hoard's Dairyman. The author and her husband work in partnership with family on a 500-cow dairy in East Moline, Ill.