DMI’s O’Brien Highlights Science-Based, Partnership-Driven Results

  • 6 min read November 17, 2023

Scott Wallin

ORLANDO, Fla. – Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) CEO and President Barbara O’Brien outlined a series of checkoff-led successes, including more science-based and partnership-driven results, to 780 dairy farmers and industry representatives attending the 2023 joint annual meeting of the United Dairy Industry Association, National Dairy Promotion and Research Board and National Milk Producers Federation held in Orlando, Fla, Nov. 14-15.

O’Brien delivered her remarks in a question-and-answer format with Pennsylvania dairy farmer and DMI Chair Marilyn Hershey and emphasized farmers’ “fingerprints” are reflected in the checkoff’s Unified Marketing Plan.

“I made a pretty big deal when I first became CEO (two years ago) that I would go on a listening tour and it continues,” O’Brien said. “With so many new leaders and a renewed DMI business plan, we took the checkoff on the road – probably 40 meetings in the first quarter of the year – where we introduced DMI or reintroduced who we are today, the capabilities and roles of each of the checkoff companies and how together, we can grow value for farmers.

“The key takeaways are listening and action, that I, and the checkoff staff, listened to farmers. We’ve made deliberate, meaningful changes that reflect your input, so farmers see their fingerprints on a plan that drives greater efficiency and impact.”

O’Brien outlined three areas of checkoff-led impact from 2023:

  • Delivering more science and outside investments
  • More focused partnerships and new product innovation
  • More in-market voices advocating for farmers and the industry overall

She emphasized the checkoff’s unique leadership capabilities across the industry by stating, “If it wasn’t for the checkoff, who would do this work?”

“If not checkoff, who is going to make those investments in research and in new partnerships to ensure we’re seen as a modern wellness solution?” O’Brien said. “Who is going to seek relationships with these foodservice giants who can help drive consumer behavior?

“Who is going to work with and through others to protect dairy’s reputation that is so critical to the business here and around the world? Who is going to monitor the emerging threats that we continue to see on farms and now plants? Who is going to make those investments to ensure we continue to drive our global position as a supplier of choice? For me, if not checkoff, then who?”

O’Brien reviewed specific highlights from 2023, including:

  • Taco Bell menu growth – checkoff-led efforts at Taco Bell led to the chain making the Grilled Cheese Burrito, which uses more than 10 times the amount of cheese than its regular crunchy taco, a permanent menu item. The checkoff’s onsite food science team also helped lead extensions on the line of frozen beverages, which use real dairy creamer. All told, Taco Bell is projected to see dairy volume increases of up to 7 percent.
  • McDonald’s dessert emphasis – the checkoff helped McDonald’s revitalize its line of dairy desserts and shakes. O’Brien pointed to the Grimace Shake, which was introduced this summer and became a viral hit that led to shake sales doubling during the campaign. The checkoff also assisted with launches of new McFlurry flavors and supported preventative maintenance testing of ice cream machines that ultimately will help keep them running.
  • School milk experience – O’Brien referenced that 37 milk processors representing more than 90 percent of the school milk volume committed to providing healthy, nutritious school milk options with no more than 10 grams of added sugar per 8-ounce serving, which meet USDA’s new proposed rule. DMI and state and regional checkoff teams continue to test ways for students to enjoy milk and other dairy-centric beverages in schools, including dispenser and aseptic options and offering milk in unique ways, such as on-the-go options and offered in athletic departments.
  • Fuel Up to Play 60 evolution – a changing and more complex school environment resulting from the pandemic led to DMI transitioning its school-based Fuel Up to Play 60 program to a more focused “Fuel Up” platform. As a result, DMI ceased its 15-year partnership with the NFL and has entered a no-cost memorandum of understanding with the league. Fuel Up allows the checkoff to work with a broader cross-section of partners and delivers schools and families solutions and resources that increase access to milk and other dairy products, expands meal participation and finds new ways to educate students on the role dairy nutrition plays in wellness and academic achievement.

O’Brien and Hershey attended the recent International Dairy Federation World Dairy Summit that attracted more than 1,240 dairy leaders from 55 countries to Chicago. Hershey said many farmers and other representatives from around the world complimented the checkoff’s work.

“I consistently heard from farmers from other countries that they wished they had a mechanism like the checkoff to lead and invest in collective work benefitting all farmers – science, innovation, marketing and issues management,” Hershey said. “We have built something that our peers across the world wish they had, and quite frankly I have been asked many times, ‘how can we develop these programs?’”

Eric Klavetter, operations administrator for the Mayo Clinic, was among the meeting’s guest speakers. Klavetter shared his perspective on the importance of the collaboration with DMI and National Dairy Council. He discussed Mayo’s vision and approach and how these values are aligned with the checkoff and the work being done to accelerate dairy nutrition research, education, outreach and transformation.

Kerry DeLaney, General Mills dairy business unit director, shared the company’s vision and commitment to driving growth with consumer-led innovation in the yogurt category. A team of experts from the checkoff-founded U.S. Dairy Export Council also provided an overview of the next three years, highlighting export markets and potential opportunities and headwinds ahead.

O’Brien said the checkoff is more critical than ever in a time of economic challenges for farmers.

“The current farm environment and the economy is such an important reminder to all of us and I’d like to say to the farmers who are here and across the country, as your staff, we are so sensitive to those business challenges you face every day,” O’Brien said. “We use it to drive us to put our energy into the Unified Marketing Plan and make sure every dollar is spent efficiently to build trust and drive demand here in the U.S. and around the world.”

For more information about the dairy checkoff, visit


About Dairy Management Inc.
Dairy Management Inc.™ (DMI) is funded by America’s nearly 30,000 dairy farmers, as well as dairy importers. Created to help increase sales and demand for dairy products, DMI and its related organizations work to increase demand for dairy through research, education and innovation, and to maintain confidence in dairy foods, farms and businesses. DMI manages National Dairy Council and the American Dairy Association, and founded the U.S. Dairy Export Council, and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.