A 2003 Vermont study found approximately 50 percent of farms have at least one nonfamily employee. A Wisconsin study of farm characteristics found that 63 percent of Wisconsin dairy farms utilize only family labor. Regardless of which survey you’d like to use, it means nonfamily labor is a significant and important factor in dairy farming today. The misconception is that only those with employees need to manage their labor resource.

Even if the farm owner or manager is the only full-time employee, they need to make sure they are making the best use of their time and expertise for the good of the farm business. If important tasks to the success of the farm are being left undone or inadequately done because too much time is taken on less demanding tasks, hired labor may be a good investment.

Potential economic benefits of hiring labor include:

•increased operational efficiency
•increased likelihood of getting tasks done on time
•more efficient use of capital and overhead
•increased production for profit
•more opportunities for growth
•more owner or manager time for marketing, pricing and financial activities

Noneconomic benefits of hiring labor include:


•reduced stress and pressure
•increased flexibility of time for leisure, health, family activities, etc.
•safer work environment often created by better trained and skilled workers

Bernard Erven of Ohio State University says, “Hiring only nonfamily members would likely make labor management on your farm a lot easier than working with family members.” What he is effectively saying is “You really can’t fire family!” You may not want to fire family members working on the farm, but effectively managing them can be more difficult than employees who feel a different level of authority from the manager than does a family member.

Ask yourself some basic questions about the work and labor needs on your farm:

•What type of help is needed?
•Is there sufficient cash flow?
•Will the job keep the interest of a highly motivated employee?
•What will be the payback to the business?
•Can the owner or manager manage people?

Staff planning guide

•Who is capable of performing various tasks?
•Determine levels of responsibility. Who is responsible and who may assist? Labor needs estimate
•task and frequency
•hours per day and how many days (total hours needed per year)
•who performs the task

Employee scheduling analysis

•who is working, how many hours per day?
•amount of overtime available to employer; is the farm willing to pay for overtime?


•employ more labor to fit the business and perhaps grow the business to fit the labor
•shrink the business to fit the available labor
•employ technology to make labor more efficient

Job descriptions

•outline necessary skills
•help screen out applicants who don’t meet qualifications
•help employees understand what is expected
•serve as a guide for employee evaluation
•involve current employees in developing job descriptions when possible
•prepare job descriptions for owners or managers to help define roles and make sure primary and important functions of management are performed intentionally, not by chance

If you go through these exercises and find you are comfortable with the match of available labor and tasks on the farm (as well as a lifestyle with which you are satisfied), congratulations. Just don’t let yourself get stuck in a rut that finds you dissatisfied five years from now because you did absolutely nothing.

If you aren’t satisfied with what you find, now is the time to start planning for an appropriate change to meet the goals and needs of your family and your business. Doing nothing is probably not a viable option for the future. PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request.

—From 2006 Minnesota Dairy Days Proceedings

Chuck Schwartau, University of Minnesota Extension Service