As the size of farms increase and the need for employees grows, many dairy producers who have never themselves worked for anyone are now finding themselves in charge of employees. Melissa O’Rourke, farm and agribusiness management specialist for Iowa State University Extension, presented “Getting the New Dairy Farm Employee Off to a Good Start on Day One” at the 2014 World Dairy Expo.

New farm employees often require a significant investment in time and effort toward recruiting, interviewing, reference checks, selection and evaluations. “Without a good start on day one, all your hiring efforts can quickly go down the drain,” O’Rourke said.

Although many farmers think that the person was hired to do a job and it is best if they simply get working as quickly as possible, research indicates otherwise.

“A well-planned orientation takes time and effort, but even one hour can really make a difference in employee turnover,” she said.

Upon hiring, clearly tell new employees what is expected of them and what will happen that first day of work, including things that may seem elementary.


Employees will be less nervous and more ready to learn that first day if they are provided with basic information such as what time to arrive, where to park, how to dress, what documents to bring, biosecurity measures and even how lunch is handled. (Should they bring lunch, is it provided or does the work crew head to town?)

O’Rourke even suggested sending a letter or email (whichever the employee prefers), clearly spelling out the aforementioned information.

Greet and welcome the new employee promptly on the first day. Introduce them to everyone and consider nametags to help them remember new faces. Make sure they know who their direct supervisor is and who is considered to be their partners or mentors.

Providing them with an organizational chart can be helpful, and of course don’t overlook something as basic as showing them where the restrooms are, she said.

“A new employee who becomes comfortable in the workplace is more likely to develop and maintain a positive attitude toward the job and the employer,” she explained. “That positive attitude translates into earlier and higher productivity.”

A well-planned orientation sets the tone for positive employment relationships. “One way to think about orientation is to sit down with current employees and ask for input. Ask current employees what they wished they had been told when they first started working at your farm,” she said.

Breaking down information for new employees into more manageable bites is a good idea, she pointed out. Too much information at one time can be overwhelming.

Also, keep in mind 85 percent of the population is two or more generations removed from the farm. Do not assume they understand all terminology or farm procedures.

Employees treated with respect have greater job satisfaction and this translates into more productive, long-term employees, which is good for the producer and the cows.

She encouraged producers to ask new employees at the end of the first day if they have any questions, offer assurances and offer information about the days to come.

“Especially in these early days of employment, the new workers need to hear constructive, upbeat messages geared toward making good early impressions,” O’Rourke said.

Studies show that millennials (ages 18 to 33) often look at their first day of work differently than those who are older. The four most common questions they ask after the first day of work are:

  • Why did they hire me for this job?
  • Will I enjoy working here?
  • Are any of my co-workers friend material?
  • Who can I talk to when I need help?

Employers with younger employees should ask themselves how their farm situation would address the questions millennials ask themselves, which may help with employee retention.

Remember to ask how to best communicate with the new employee. Some younger people don’t even check voicemail messages and only prefer to text.

O’Rourke said even though it is a time-consuming task, it is a great idea to create an employee manual. But, she cautioned, an employee manual can be seen as a contract between the farmer and the employee.

“Producers should expect to be legally held to the language and promises made in that handbook,” she said. “The money a producer spends having a competent employment lawyer review employment documents and procedures may be the best money spent.”

For example, it works best on most farms for employment to be “at will,” so that an employee can be dismissed when necessary. Having a “progressive discipline” policy in employee handbooks can prevent that from happening.

Employee policy handbooks should include all key policies, compensation and benefit information. But, O’Rourke cautioned to not just hand the employee the book and expect them to read it. “Orientation is the employer’s opportunity to review the policies, explain rationale and provide opportunities for questions and clarification.”

Written job descriptions are a key part of orientation, and information should also be shared about the relationship among positions and importance of other jobs and functions on the farm.

Offering uniform shirts with the farm name and the employee’s name on them can be a good idea, along with having laminated name badges. O’Rourke said such identification measures not only help the employees interact, but farm security and biosecurity protocols are enhanced when each farm employee is clearly identified.

While producers need to check with their own states to learn what procedures must be filed to comply with state requirements, O’Rourke urged producers to use as a resource to assure the most current I-9 procedures are followed for new employees.

Employers should also be familiar with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as the law pertains to overtime and farm employees. There are exemptions, but become familiar with the law to be sure. For example, a bookkeeper on a farm would not be exempt from overtime rules since they are not directly involved with the farm operations. Go to to learn more about FLSA. PD

Kelli Kaderly-Boylen is a freelancer based in northeast Iowa.

Melissa O’Rourke, farm and agribusiness management specialist for Iowa State University Extension, presented “Getting the New Dairy Farm Employee Off to a Good Start on Day One” at the 2014 World Dairy Expo. Courtesy photo.