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Focus on caring: Keys for success for multistate dairy and beef production operation

MORRIS, Minn. — The secret sauce for Riverview Dairy is the focus on caring for the people, animals and environment.

“Worker safety is one of our top priorities,” said Kevin Wulf, of Riverview Dairy, which is based in western Minnesota and operates across five states — Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Arizona and New Mexico.”

“That focus drives every corner of our business, and we want to do that with a strong work ethic and by keeping things simple,” Wulf explained during the Insights from Dairy Farming’s Frontlines webinar hosted by Charleston/Orwig .

The dairy and beef production operation includes about 1,300 employees that currently milk 100,000 cows.

“Whatever happens outside the company like COVID, dairy prices or immigration changes affect the company, but we focus on the things we can control like cost of production and our safety number,” Wulf said. “And we take the changes in the marketplace or world as they come at us.”

Efficiency is important, Wulf said, to drive down the cost of production, and part of that includes keeping things simple.

“Simple doesn’t mean they’re easy, but they’re easy to understand,” he said. “Then anyone who joins the team can get caught up to speed and feel like part of the process.”

A couple of years ago, Riverview starting tracking illnesses of their employees at the southwest locations to anticipate when they might need additional employees to cover job responsibilities.

“We discovered in the spring and fall there was a bubble of coworkers that were not able to come in because of the flu or another illness,” Wulf said.

Since the pandemic hit the United States, several practices have been implemented at Riverview, including social distancing, adding hand sanitizer stations and taking employees’ temperatures before they start their workday.

“We’ve had zero cases of COVID, so that normal bump in other illnesses did not happen this spring, and we attribute that to these precautions,” Wulf said.

“These are things we could have been doing anyway not to spread illnesses from one to another, so I’m not sure we’ll keep all the pieces in place, but certainly we’ll be more mindful of how things spread from person to person.”

Immigration is an important topic for Riverview since the Arizona farms are located only 45 miles from the Mexico border.

“We have about 50 people that come across the border every day, and we’re not the only place of employment that has people crossing every day,” Wulf said.

Since there has not been a huge number of COVID-19 cases in the county, Wulf said, Riverview workers have been able to go back and forth across the border.

“Tourism has been more restricted, but people coming across on a daily basis to work have not been restricted,” he said.

The entire milk production of the Riverview operation is sent to processors for making cheese.

“It took a little more flexibility and a lot more communication, but we were able to get through without having to dump any milk,” Wulf said about the time period when some processors had to stop taking milk as demand for dairy products crashed due to the closer of schools and restaurants.

“Our two dairies in Arizona and one in New Mexico were asked to reduce our milk production by 10%, and if we didn’t do that, the 10% would be paid at a very discounted rate,” Wulf said.

“We culled cows a little sooner to reduce our production, and we’re still being asked to produce 10% less milk, but if we produce more than that, the price has increased, but it is not back to normal price.”

Since Wulf does professional and personal development classes for his co-workers at Riverview, he had a shift in job responsibilities with the onset of COVID-19.

“I helped with haylage and wheatlage harvest, and now I’m back in the office doing classes again,” he said.

Although social distancing and a focus on general cleanliness, including hand washing, will continue at Riverview, Wulf said he does not expect drastic changes to happen at the farms as a result of the pandemic.

“We want to be careful and smart, but we don’t want to operate out of fear,” he said.

“One thing we really value at Riverview is personal connection and the time we can spend together,” he said. “These video chats are great, you can get communication across the airwaves, but it is really hard to do relationships long term through the airwaves and we want to get the family feel back by having people physically in the same room.”

Tours Suspended

During the pandemic, Riverview suspended all public tours.

“The biggest difference for the cows is they’re not seeing visitors,” Wulf said. “We are opening our tours back up next week, but they will be driving tours.”

Driving tours will limit exposure of visitors to those working at Riverview, but still allow people to visit the farm.

“We want to share our story, so people can see what a farm looks like,” Wulf said.

Long-term impacts of the pandemic, Wulf said, may result in consumers rethinking the definition of essential workers.

“I think people appreciate that they could still go to the grocery store and their favorite foods were still available even though they were limited at times,” he said.

“I don’t know how big the effect will be or how long it will be, but I do think we’ll have some positive forward movement instead of neutral or negative.”

For more information about Riverview Dairy, go to: www.riverviewllp.com.

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