Producing a quality product should be the goal of every dairy farm. However, not every employee’s idea of a dream job centers around milking cows 12 hours a day. With that in mind, Dr. Michelle Borek-Stine, DVM, of Thumb Veterinary Services in Sandusky, Michigan, developed a unique approach to “tame the tiger” of employee engagement and turnover.
Borek-Stine shared her experience at the 47th annual conference of the Dairy Practices Council held recently in East Lansing, Michigan.
As a DVM for nine years, Borek-Stine said, “Initially, my role was to be a veterinarian; people called when they had a sick cow. But I really enjoy working with people, and I enjoy trying to make a safer food product, and I also coach basketball, so talking and teaching people came naturally to me.”
Borek-Stine had one farm with a large employee turnover rate, and she realized something needed to be done. “The farm had 22 employees, and in one year they sent out 200 W-2 forms. And there is a huge cost to every new employee.”
When the farm approached her about a solution to the problem, Borek-Stine suggested having continual on-farm meetings to train and engage employees.
“The whole point is to engage the employees so they last a little bit longer or move up in the operation,” she explained. She believes that when you enhance the level of employee knowledge of the farm, you automatically raise the level of general public knowledge of how food is harvested.
Borek-Stine began with monthly on-farm meetings that were rich in teaching material, including everything from calving tips to milking procedures. Now they are holding monthly meetings at the Thumb Veterinary Services Clinic for anyone to attend, and the normal attendance is from 20 to 40 people.
Building a trusting relationship is a big step in the process. Trust is built through time, and Borek-Stine is a familiar face on the farm, stopping at least once or twice a week for short visits.
“You need to be that person who the employees can trust, not throwing them under the bus by telling them ‘You are doing this wrong, and I’m going to tell your boss,’ but more like, ‘Let’s fix this and get it right.’” She maintains that when you know better, then you are going to do better.
Stopping in at the farm on short visits to look at a problem or ask how things are going not only builds trust and a relationship, it is also what makes her approach different than a consultant’s role.
Teamwork is crucial to success, and having the employees buy in completely to the business of harvesting milk is essential. When Borek-Stine conducts the farm’s initial meeting, she begins with posing the question, “What do you do?” The response she most often receives is simple: “I milk cows.”
Her response to that changes their self-perception: “You do more than milk cows. You have to set everything up and make sure it’s clean; you have to move the cattle in, check for mastitis, check for disease and harvest a food product.”
Borek-Stine continued, “By the end of the day I want their answer to that question to be, ‘I harvest a safe food product to feed the world.’” It’s essential for the employees to believe in what they are doing and that the end product being sold to the public matters.
Each meeting at the farm is individualized, and Borek-Stine engages PowerPoints, photos of the farm, videos, milk production graphs and quizzes to determine the employee level of knowledge. While keeping the timely meetings to a concise format with an outline and open discussion is helpful, changing it up produces positive results as well.
The meetings can cover a variety of topics from the breakdown of the milk check to milk production fluctuations by shift to the importance of animal welfare. Borek-Stine explained that because not everyone can read English, graphics and videos are a valuable teaching tool.
The current hot topic on the farm is also included in the meeting discussion. From farm to farm this will vary, but it’s important to ask the staff what hot topic they want to address.
This could range from something they are struggling with or an aspect of the day-to-day operation they want to improve upon, such as a faster milking time or calf-feeding procedures.
“The follow-up after the meeting is really important. After each meeting, I send the farm owner a summary and an attendance sheet for accountability,” she explained.
Borek-Stine stressed the time element is crucial to the success of the continuous on-farm meeting approach. “It’s going to take four to five months before the employees really buy in to it.” She continued, “You will have employees who are toxic; they aren’t going to change because this is the way they’ve always done it, and it takes time to weed them out or to help them buy in to it.”
Over time, measuring the outcome of the meetings is valuable in determining what needs to be improved upon. Employee turnover, parlor efficiency, employee engagement, somatic cell counts and on-farm injuries are just a few aspects to measure.
Borek-Stine concluded with the reminder, “At the end of the day, in this life we cannot do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”
- Freelance Writer
- North Adams, Michigan