You've sold the cows. Now what?

Jim Dickrell
Farm Journal

Whether you exit the dairy business because you’re being forced to or are doing so voluntarily to preserve equity, know that there are some hard times ahead.

Anyone selling off their dairy herd will likely go through a period of grieving. Here's what to expect.

Change of any kind is difficult for everyone, whether it is being forced upon you or is viewed as an opportunity toward better things.

“When major change occurs, everyone has similar types of feelings. Fear, anxiety and loss of control are often experienced,” says Sharon Danes, a professor of family social science in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. “A very crucial factor in how one interacts with a change is how one views the change. The more you value what is changing, the greater the sense of loss you will experience.”

Grieving is normal

The key thing to remember is that grieving is normal, and everyone goes through the grieving process, says Bob Milligan, a specialist in human resource management with Dairy Strategies, LLC. “When you get up in the morning to milk the cows and there are no more cows to milk, you are going to grieve. And the grieving likely will last periodically over a long time,” he says.

The grieving process is painful but for most people, worthwhile. At the end of the process, some will even wonder why they didn’t make changes sooner, says Milligan.

Everyone dealing with change goes through stages of grief. “People will go through these stages in different ways and in different time frames,” says Danes. It’s also not a smooth process, and people will revert to previous stages as they work through the process.  

“Individuals can take steps backwards and even get caught up in periods of depression and detachment from others,” she says. “How quickly one goes through the grief-and-loss cycle depends on the intensity of meaning that a person has placed on the change.”

The first stage is shock and denial that the change is occurring. People at this stage will often blame others, and deny a need for decision making. This stage is followed by anger, frustration, anxiety, embarrassment and shame. “Decision making is very difficult in this stage because their energies are so involved in the emotions of the situation,” says Danes.

If you are in this stage, you may need help making decisions. There is no shame in asking for help. Just be sure the person you ask for assistance is someone you trust and someone with the actual expertise to help. You may have full faith in a family friend or pastor, but can that person guide you through selling off the back forty, says Milligan.

The anger stage is typically followed by depression and detachment. “If a person becomes clinically depressed, they will need help from a professional to move out of this stage,” says Danes. This, too, becomes problematic because some rural communities don’t have professional counselors who are trained to deal with patients with clinical depression. Here, family or a close friend may have to step in to find the care you need.

Once you move on from the detachment stage, you will enter into a dialogue and bargaining stage. “Individuals then have a desire to tell their story because they are struggling to find meaning for what has happened,” Danes says. And at this point, individuals often become more open to alternatives and exploring more options.

Eventually they reach the stage of acceptance. This doesn’t mean they like the change that is occurring, but they have reached the point where they are beginning to incorporate it into their lives. “People are again empowered to make decisions because they have meaning in their lives again,” says Danes.

People around those who grieve need to be aware of their impact on those who are grieving. They need to be empathetic when interacting rather than overly sympathetic. “After the initial shock of the change, you don’t help people by being overly sympathetic. It’s much better to show empathy and encourage people to seek help,” says Milligan.

When someone is struggling, an overly sympathetic response can be: “It’s certainly awful.” An empathetic response would be to sensitively suggest one or two ideas to solve the problem or move forward.  

Caregivers also need to understand the length of the grieving process. Too often, people offer help initially but aren’t there when people really need help. This can be months and even several years after the initial change event, says Milligan. So periodically checking in with people is crucial in helping them weather the crisis.

Three Steps Forward, One Step Back            

“Change is often a process of three steps forward and one backward,” says Danes.  One way to reduce misunderstandings is to have a written plan of what needs to be done to resolve the situation.  A written plan is particularly good when there is more than one person involved in the change.

At the very least, try to develop five characteristics to enhance your resilience in dealing with change. These include:            

  • Be positive. “Positive people develop the ability to view life as challenging, dynamic and filled with opportunities,” says Danes. “They appreciate the dangers and threats in change, but are not overwhelmed by them. They catch themselves when they are thinking negatively and try to reframe things in a positive light.”
  • Be focused. “Focused people determine where they are headed and stick to that goal so that barriers along the way do not become insurmountable,” she says.
  • Be flexible. “Be open to different options when faced with uncertainty,” says Danes. 
  • Be organized. Organized people set priorities, but will renegotiate if a detour from the original priority is required. “They recognize when to ask others for help,” she says.              

Be proactive. “Proactive people work with change rather than defend against it, and they draw important lessons from change-related experiences to apply to similar situations. They also use resources creatively to reframe a changing situation,” says Danes.

“Reprinted by permission of Farm Journal media, August 2018”