Characteristics of successful dairy farms by: Jim Salfer, Extension dairy specialist at University of Minnesota


My work experiences have allowed me to interact with many different farmers from throughout the Upper Midwest. There seems to be a common thread between the most successful farmers. Below are some of the common characteristics I have observed.

Successful farmers have an attitude of gratitude.

For most of us, our relationships with our families and friends are more important than financial success. Successful farmers are gracious and thankful for the consumers who buy their products, the agribusiness professionals who work with them, and their employees and family members who help them succeed.

Successful farmers have a passion for their work and a positive attitude toward the future.

Even though they may not know what the future holds they understand that prices and costs are cyclical. They believe that farming can be a good business and with the right business strategy will allow them the lifestyle that they enjoy.

Top dairy farmers have flexible business plans with long and short-range goals.

Business plans can be simple. A good business plan will help identify your competitive advantage. Research has found that having a plan is less about accurately predicting the future and more about setting regular goals, tracking your progress toward those goals, and adjusting your business as conditions change.

Successful farmers are constantly scanning the environment looking for trends and opportunities to leverage their advantages. They ponder how their business fits in to a changing future. If anything, 2020 taught us that the future is unpredictable and constantly changing. Successful farmers of the future will be nimble and constantly looking for new opportunities while minimizing risk. In the short term, they plan and take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

I encourage farms to annually have a meeting with trusted advisors to share their vision for the future and get input on trends they might be missing.

Top dairies are organized and get the work done on time.

These farmers plan ahead and anticipate the work that needs to be done. This proactive approach helps minimize the number of crises that occur.

Top farmers have excellent cow skills.

Dairy farmers have excellent “cow sense.” They have a unique ability to spot a sick cow before she gets too sick. They can observe a cow in estrus just by her behavior. On large farms, owners and managers realize that they need to hire and train people to develop these skills.

Top dairy producers consistently buy or produce lots of high-quality forage.

High-quality forage is the foundation for good production and good cow health. In addition, successful farmers do an excellent job of managing forage inventory. They anticipate low inventories of forage and adjust the diet or procure forage well in advance of running out.

Top producers keep good records.

Top producers realize that production and financial records are crucial to making management decisions. Records are used in conjunction with setting goals and developing an action plan to set a course for profitability. Records are also used to monitor progress against the goals. In addition, on an annual basis, these records are used to benchmark their farm against their past performance and other dairies.

Top dairy producers have healthy comfortable cows.

Top producers realize that clean dry and comfortable healthy cows will be higher producing cows. They keep all animals on the farm clean and well bedded. Buildings are well ventilated. Water and mangers are clean.

Top dairy managers have good dry cow programs and take special care of special needs animals.

The top producers realize that dry cow management is the key to a profitable subsequent lactation. Transition cows are special cows with special needs. Most health problems occur during this period. Good dairy producers observe these cows closely and intervene at the first sign of trouble — before cows are extremely ill.

These are some of my observations of the common characteristics of the top dairy producers. Some of these are not easy to do on a consistent basis. But the good news is that there are no magic feeds, pills, shots, or other secrets that the top producers have in their management toolbox. Most producers can implement these practices and many of them do not require high amounts of capital outlay.

We offer a business planning class, “Planning your dairy farm future,” that can help you reach your goals. If you are interested, please contact me at or 320-203-6093.