In a business like dairy that balances on narrow margins, every chance for improvement offers opportunities to use resources more effectively and more efficiently. At Natural Prairie Dairy in Hartley, Texas, Donald De Jong leads with that value of continuous improvement to help his team better understand and better take care of their cows, their land, and their business.
“We’re never satisfied, and we are always pushing,” he said.
That attitude has helped De Jong and his family grow their operation basically from scratch into one that now organically milks 14,000 cows, conventionally milks another 9,000, and maintains about 50,000 acres between cropland and pasture. At the same time, they have developed a detailed human resources program complete with clear opportunities for employee advancement and implemented a state-of-the-art manure handling system that uses mechanical vapor recompression to capture 90% of waste ammonia. Continuous improvement clearly refers to every aspect of this farm, and De Jong will be sharing more about that perspective and his farm when he kicks off the virtual 2021 Connect Summit on October 13.
Question everythingThe son of Dutch immigrants and born and raised in Southern California, De Jong caught the dairy farming bug from his family, as did all three of his brothers. When he and his wife, Cheri, started dairying in the High Plains of Texas, organic production was not on their mind. But, 20 years ago, when grocery store customers of their cooperative asked for organic milk to fill their needs, the De Jongs raised their hands. They started the experiment with 400 cows but were quickly asked to expand.
The process of converting land and all of their procedures to organic methods was an eye-opening one, De Jong said. “It really made us question everything we do and how we do it. When you grow up in dairy, you have a motto of ‘That’s the way it’s supposed to be done because it’s always been done that way.’ [The conversion] helped us to overcome that,” he shared. “What I look at now is being able to question the approach to everything and say what we do and why we do it. We’ve done that on all of our operations, from farming to the cows to our human equity.
“We strive to always deliver a competitive advantage,” De Jong continued. “We do that by measuring everything and understanding everything up and down the farm.”
Finding the right tools
Constantly evaluating where the farm is and how any particular enterprise can be improved is central to the Natural Prairie business plan. Those evaluations include comparisons to dairy benchmarks but also sometimes to companies outside of farming. This allows them to find strategies — for example, in human resources to support their 400 employees — across all industries that can be applied to agriculture.
“We know there’s no magic bullets out there, but always be open because there’s a lot of smart people out there approaching it from different perspectives. We can say, ‘That might fit in agriculture.’ We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” De Jong said.
As the dairy industry continues to change and grow, especially in his part of the country, De Jong believes that finding those right partners for the future of your farm is critical to staying competitive and operating to the best of your ability. “No one can do it themselves,” he noted, advising that seeking out the right measurements and right information can make a big difference in a farm’s success.
De Jong and the other speakers throughout the two-day virtual Connect Summit will discuss how technology and data can be best utilized to make a difference in the dairy industry. For more information and to register, click here.