Whether you have five employees or 50, employee management is no easy task. However, some systems work better than others. During the 2017 Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Conference this past April in Middleton, Wisconsin, three producers shared some insight into how they work with and manage their employees.


  • Megan Kissel
  • Calf manager at Aardema Group in Wendell, Idaho
  • 25,000 milk cows; 9,500-10,000 calves under 7 months; 13,000 heifers 7-20 months
  • Lavon Yoder
  • Manager at Country View Calves in Shipshewana, Indiana
  • 100 farms with 65 to 850 head per farm
  • Paul Jacobs
  • Co-owner of Jacobs Brothers in DePere, Wisconsin
  • 3,500 milk cows; 4,000 heifers

Tell us about your training program and how it sets your employees up for success.

KISSEL: All managers for Aardema Group go through a training program called People First. This program really teaches everyone to look at all of your employees’ learning levels and the way that they learn. A lot of people want to just tell their employees what to do, and kind of what we learned is that a very small fraction of your employees are going to understand what you’re trying to tell them, so you can say it over and over again, but if they don’t understand the task, they’re not going to do what you want them to do. ... You learn by either telling, someone showing you and seeing it visually, or you doing it yourself.

We first always explain the expectations of the position, explain what we would like them to be doing, and then I like to either myself or somebody else have the new employees be trained and have them show what they’re going to be doing, and after that I like to see them do the task. ... It takes a person seven times of seeing something or hearing before they can really commit it to memory, and so if we can get those three things down in the first day and then continue on that with follow-up and reteaching, then hopefully we’re training people to be successful.

YODER: I think probably the biggest thing that I’ve always preached to myself is as a company show them the way, teach, teach, teach. ... Why are we putting feed in this bucket? It’s to explain, why are they doing it. Not just give me the bucket. Give them the bucket. Remember accompany ... show the way.

JACOBS: We would lose people through improper onboarding procedures, so when we bring them in, we make them sit down with their manager and we go through every protocol, every SOP, make sure there’s a thorough understanding of what they need to do or what the expectations are. Stuff that we take for granted because it’s committed to memory. New hires are usually expected to be mind readers, so what we’ve tried to do is remove that responsibility and explain it to them on a very clear level.


One thing that we toss around the farm a lot is a quote that we try to go by, and it’s, “Tell me and I will forget; show me and I will remember; and involve me and I’ll understand.” It’s proven dividends to take the time to onboard them properly. It may take an extra day. We don’t allow them to touch animals or have contact with animals for two days until they understand how we want them handled, how to move them, how to work with them. ... There are costs associated with it. Spending those two days with those people and really getting no value from them, but we’ve realized that we’ve gotten far more value than what those two days cost us by onboarding them properly.

How do you engage new employees and make sure they’re prepared?

JACOBS: We implemented a new management program to differentiate ourselves. It gets supervisors and your managers involved with you, and it provides them training in leadership and clear, concise professional growth trajectory. It was really the intent ... to create careers, not jobs. By engaging people and getting them on a level of writing the protocols and SOPs and helping us enforce them, giving them management responsibilities and in turn training them so they’re qualified and capable of succeeding in a management role, in a supervisory role, that really helped us grow our level of people and it’s hopefully going to allow us to continue to grow and our limiting factor won’t be people.

YODER: The first thing I do when I interview people is I try to determine their talents, make sure that I put them in the right field so that they are operating at full capacity. ... After they’re in the system, I always try to ask myself when I go out, “Am I connecting with you or am I just correcting you?” That is something that I try to write in my mind, “Am I connecting or am I correcting?” And there is a difference, and one does work and the other gets old. Verify understanding; do follow-ups on past training. ... We have weekly staff meetings where all of the managers get together, and there’s a lot of problems that get solved when you engage with your employees through communication.

KISSEL: I started out as the assistant, and I did that for about a year and a half, and I could really see everything that was going on and choose if I liked it, didn’t like it or wanted to change it. When I had the ability to change all of these things at the calf ranch, that was kind of scary for a lot of people. I think a lot of my employees thought, “What is she doing?” Everything is different now. Something I really tried to do is teach them why I was doing it and explain every step that we were going through and how that was going to affect all of the heifers.

I knew that it was going to be harder for them to adjust to it at first, but if I could get them to buy into what I was doing, it was going to be a lot easier. It was a struggle at first, but now that everyone has the knowledge behind what we do and why we do it, they’re very supportive any time we do choose to change anything. I think giving your employees the credit and teaching them and understanding that they really can understand and help you out is huge for employee engagement.

How do you manage conflict on your operation?

YODER: I think prevention rather than curing is the key on employee conflict. When they know, clarity avoids a lot of blame games. If you tell a person to tell this and this and this, and here comes 20 more workers who you tell, “Yeah, you can do this and this,” you’re creating an open door for blame games. People want to know. If you don’t take the time, it’ll cost your company time and money. Explain and clarify – avoiding the blame game is huge. In an interview I always say, “Jack, if you have a problem with Bill, you go talk to Bill. Don’t go talk to Jordan.” Diversity is strength. Get your team to focus on their positives and know that you won’t tolerate nit-picking.

KISSEL: Something I try to do to avoid conflict is get on top of it quickly. It always seems like it would be easier to ignore it, but it never goes away. I also like to think about the personalities of the people who I have working in the groups, and there are some people who just don’t get along with those couple people in that group, and if you move them they might be one of your best employees if you move them to a group that they get along with and can thrive in.

JACOBS: We do disc profiles for our leadership teams and supervisors. We also do some in-house training and educate people, ourselves included, on how to handle certain situations. All of our disc profiles are in a book. ... We’ve found that it’s not the people that usually can control their emotions who need to step back and look at the book and go through the proper steps, it’s the people that can’t. ... The other thing that’s nice too is with our management model, we do two-week supervision notes. We’ve all been part of annual reviews. You put them off as long as you can. ... The way it’s set up, you’re never having to manage more than four people. ... Your emotions don’t build and build for 13 months or a year. By having biweekly supervision, opportunities for improvement are easier to address because it’s on a more continual basis.

You’re stronger together than you are apart, and I think they [brothers/father/uncle] would echo the same sentiment. Instead of focusing on what the other’s shortcomings are, focus on what they’re good at and get them to do more of it. ... It forms a good partnership and you can play off of each other’s strengths instead of worrying about each other’s weaknesses.

How do you work with your operation’s staff to make sure they feel rewarded and recognized?

YODER: You can ask anyone who quit a company; usually it’s not just about the money – that’s usually not top priority. Are you adding value to them? When I look at my employee in the eye, when you think about all of your employees, you think, “Am I adding value to him?” If you are and you appreciate him, he’s going to be pretty dedicated to you. If you can keep that in your mind next time, are you adding value? If you can do that with appreciation, humans like to be appreciated. If you know that you’re fulfilling your talents and you’re appreciated for it, the longevity of the job is prolonged.

KISSEL: I’m the first one to say that I can’t do what I do without my employees. I want all of them to know that. I make sure that they all know that, and I make sure that my superiors know that they carry me and allow me to do what I do. I’m huge on please, thank you and recognizing my employees and just making sure each and every one of them knows I can’t do my job if I don’t have them.

JACOBS: While we were in the infancy of this management model, we brought in the people that we work with and we had some candid discussions. We felt it was fairly open and unbiased, and we asked them why they left their previous employers. ... We pooled them all and believe it or not, money was number three on the list. Number one was how they were treated and number two was a lack of growth opportunities. ... It prompted us to buy into it [management model] even more. By implementing it, it gave them a clear growth trajectory for professional development and a succession plan. ... It removed all of the subjectiveness out of the review process, the raise process, and it was very black and white. It didn’t matter if I liked you or didn’t like you. If you did the job, you were rewarded and promoted that way, and it allowed clarity in that regard. That really motivated people and by those promotions. Because everybody’s on the same management plan even though they’re different career trajectories, they still understand that this person went from here to here in this amount of time. Co-workers know each other’s progression and they take notice, so their peers are also giving them the recognition, not so much their superiors sometimes.

We also try to create an environment where it’s safe to bring their kids to work occasionally. ... Obviously there are certain situations – we don’t let them bring their kids to the milking parlor or anything – but if there’s outside work, we try to include them. I think that’s gone a long way with them too.

We do ESL [English as a second language] classes, and it’s turned out to be fun for us too. The people that do it, level one is 20 hours of ESL classes, and then when they pass that we give them a certificate. ... The guys really like it, and we like it, and it’s spurred a lot of the other people who don’t speak Spanish and English is their first language to start learning Spanish. It’s created a comradery and almost a mutual level of respect for the different nationalities and it’s been rewarding.

How do you manage employees who are older than you?

YODER: Back when I was 21 or so 16 years ago, I got my first leadership job. ... I always tried to make sure that if I have a problem and it needs to be worked out, that I don’t go up as their father and tell them what to do. Most people don’t mind fixing something if they think it’s their idea, if they buy into it. I know that’s a challenge, but it’s very doable, and once you have their respect, you can go up and tell them how it’s done.

KISSEL: I currently have one employee who is younger than me. The majority of them could be my parents. It’s been a pretty big thing to get over that and to be able to talk with them and have a good relationship with them, and I think the biggest thing is like Lavon said, getting their buy in. Approach everything by asking a question. Asking them to do it rather than telling. Sometimes it might get to the point where this really needs to get done and you’re not helping me get that done. There have been some conflicts, but a lot of times if you ask for help versus telling them what to do, that’s the best way that I’ve gone about it.  end mark

Jenna Hurty-Person

PHOTO: Panelists (left to right) Megan Kissel, Lavon Yoder and Paul Jacobs discuss their strategies for employee management at the 2017 DCHA Conference. Photo by Jenna Hurty-Person.