Strengthening consumer confidence

Written by Christine Bush
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To proactively answer the needs of consumers, retailers and processors, Dairy Farmers of America developed the Gold Standard Dairy Program in 2007 and is continuously evolving it to ensure best practices and emerging areas of interest on dairy farms are understood. The on-farm evaluation assesses areas, such as animal care and wellness, environmental stewardship, employee training, and milk safety and quality.

“Animal care has always been a topic important to people,” says David Darr, vice president of sustainability and general manager of Farm Services. “Things like environmental stewardship, water use, manure management and employee training are becoming more prevalent from customers who ask questions.”

Interest from DFA’s customers and consumers is also increasing in traceability of products, and retailers are getting more specific about what quality assurances they want. The increased concern is due, in part, to the rise in food safety discussions on social media and mainstream media.

“Our customers want to be able to answer the questions consumers are asking,” Darr says. “Customers are asking for wider ranges of information from the farm. Leaders at Walmart want to know if we have animal care and environmental stewardship programs at our member farms. They are also showing a growing interest in fertilizer use and cropping practices. Management at Unilever, the world’s third largest consumer goods company, wants to have 100 percent sustainably sourced food by the year 2020.”

Years ago, it was practically unheard of for representatives from a retail outlet to request a farm visit to learn more about how their food sources are made. Now, customers periodically request a visit to a farm or ask more detailed questions about quality and safety standards.

“We’ve seen companies create their own definitions for sustainability in their supply chain,” Darr says. “Another business may want to see pasture-based programs that can be documented and almost certified.”

The information gathered from the Gold Standard Dairy Program evaluations is designed to give manufacturers the results they need so they can use facts to answer questions. 
 
“The conversation has changed with food manufacturers and retailers,” says Doug Glade, executive vice president of DFA’s Global Dairy Products Group. “It used to be that we talked about price and specification. Now, it’s expanding to provide more context on how we manage our value chain and customer safety requirements.” 

The Gold Standard Dairy Program is in its third iteration, with the first round of assessments conducted in 2007 and a second in 2010. The third round is currently under way. Darr says that introducing a new program every three years gives DFA time to develop an evaluation that takes into consideration the changing needs of consumers and the dairy environment.

Three key areas of the Gold Standard Dairy Program have changed from the program’s inception. Although the National Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management program, or FARM, has always been part of the foundation of Gold Standard, FARM went through a significant revision after its 2010 launch.

“It’s been condensed considerably and made more efficient for member farms,” Darr says.  “At the same time, it’s stricter in some areas. The FARM segment inquires about operating procedures on things that get done on the farms, but also written standard operating procedures and documentation.”

The most recent Gold Standard evaluation also introduces different types of questions. The questions center on environmental stewardship and land, fertilizer and water use.

This section added a few more questions, but Darr says with the contraction of questions in the FARM section, producers shouldn’t see much of a time change for completing the survey.

In a time where information, whether factual or not, is readily available through the Internet or social media, the Gold Standard evaluations are another way to provide facts straight from the farm.
“As each generation moves farther away from the farm, it’s harder for people to understand how food is produced,” says John Wilson, senior vice president and chief fluid marketing officer. “The information from the Gold Standard Dairy evaluations is one way to clear up some of the misinformation we have out there. We can factually talk about some of the farm practices and information about how our members are producing the milk that we market.”

Over the past seven years, information gleaned from the Gold Standard Dairy surveys is extensive, with field representatives completing more than 20,000 evaluations of member farms. During the first two versions of the program, DFA had a 90 percent member participation rate.

Time spent completing the evaluation is another area of improvement. In the two previous versions, field staff conducted the surveys on paper forms; now the survey is conducted electronically using an iPad application.

“The old format using paper could be inefficient and clumsy,” Darr says. “The paper was bulky and difficult to handle. With the app, we have better timelines of receiving data, and we will ultimately have better reporting information that will be easier to get back out to our members.”

The iPads not only get rid of the paper process, the use of electronics also improves communication between field representatives and members.

“The process on the iPad is nice,” says Maureen Leahy, a Central Area field representative. “I’m not flipping through pages, and producers can sit next to me and read with me. The electronic version also makes the process faster. If the member answers ‘no,’ the program will automatically populate ‘not applicable’ in the appropriate spots.”

Leahy says use of the electronic version allows her to send the survey straight to the office, which reduces the chance of a paper mixup.

What hasn’t changed with the Gold Standard Dairy Program is that it’s an opportunity for members to gain insight into their operations.

“By having conversations about farm practices, employee training, animal care management and going through the evaluation process with their field representative, members can learn about their dairy,” Darr says. “By having a program that’s internally developed and managed, it gives us a great opportunity to talk with members and help them to learn and have an opportunity for evolution or improvement.”

The Ohlde family in Linn, Kan., completed all three versions of the Gold Standard evaluation.

“The Gold Standard evaluations are a good resource for standard operating procedures,” Kyler Ohlde says. “It validates what we are doing and allows our customers and consumers to see that we are following good practices.”

Kyler, along with his brother, Justin, and father, Steve, operate the dairy the Ohlde family started in 1955. The Ohldes milk 1,050 cows and utilize the help of 21 employees to run the operation. Kyler says he displays posters and utilizes sample protocols supplied through the Gold Standard program.

“We always let the employees know that taking care of the animals is a big deal,” Kyler says. “We know that what’s important to us has to be important to our employees.”

Wilson says DFA is built on the same principles as our members.

“Quality is of the utmost importance,” Wilson says. “Animal well-being is absolutely critical because the better you treat your animal, the better she is going to produce for you. Producers want to produce something their kids can consume because their health and safety is their top priority.”

Field representatives have started their latest evaluations, but Darr says it will most likely take a full three years to survey all member farms. If members have questions, they can contact their field representative. They may also access continuous improvement and standard operating procedure templates or policies to use on the farm by logging into myDFA at dfamilk.com.

“We must have a sense of openness and transparency,” Darr says. “We need to let people know that we are producing quality food, through quality practices and quality care for animals, training of employees and responsible use of the environment.”