Let’s face it, finding and retaining good employees is becoming a major hurdle on many dairy farms. The economy is picking up, which leads to more competition for employees.

Case mark
Technical Sales Manager — Animal Nutrition / Genesis Alkali
Mark Case was formerly a dairy specialist for Vita Plus.

Baby boomers are retiring at a pace faster than new employees entering the workforce, making the labor pool smaller. Many dairy farms are having a harder time finding Latino labor due to their unease with the current political landscape. These factors, among many others, limit a farm’s ability to find good employees.

So what can you do? A few key strategies can be implemented to give you an edge in finding and keeping great employees.

Get to know the labor pool

First, consider what types of positions you need to fill on your farm. Are they general labor positions or do they require specialized skills, education or training?

For more skilled positions, some farms have found value in professional recruiting companies, but these are not the only resources. Local community colleges offering animal science classes and universities with agricultural programs are both good places to ask about students who might be looking for jobs and be good fits for skilled positions.


Don’t forget about the many consultants who visit your farm. Let them know about your labor needs; sometimes they know individuals who are looking to do something different.

Next, carefully consider the local labor pool in your area and where or how these potential employees may find their jobs. For example, someone who has lived in the area his or her entire life will likely hear about jobs from different sources than immigrant workers. Young workers may be more prone to using online resources.

Faith Cullens, a Michigan State University dairy extension agent, has some practical ways to advertise and find potential employees. Placing an ad on Craigslist may help you find employees from the local area. She uses the example of a farmer who placed an ad on Craigslist and, in two to three days, had 10 applicants. You will need to determine whether these applicants are qualified, but this is a good starting point.

If you are trying to connect with Latino workers in your area, think about the common places where they may gather and share opportunities with each other. Cullens advises putting an ad on the board in a Mexican grocery store. Point out your job opportunities to store workers; they might already know someone who could be a good fit.

Visit churches that offer services in Spanish and ask how you might be able to connect with people looking for work. Last, many Latinos support each other and help place peers in jobs. Cullens recommends asking others who are in these “local networks” who may be able to help you find employees.

Prepare employees for success

Onboarding new employees is very important. Cullens explains new employees need someone to show them simple things. Where is the bathroom? Where do I eat my lunch? Where do I park my car?

Cullens suggests creating a simple checklist of things for the new employee to learn on the first few days of employment. Pair the new employee with a manager and give the same checklist to both individuals to make sure the information is understood.

Items on the checklist can include a farm tour, job description, learning expectations and a timeline to complete them, pay rate, pay schedule, work schedule, work attire, where to park, bathroom location, where to store food and eat lunch, introduction to other employees, what to do in case of accident or emergency, location of phone lists and policies regarding tardiness, sick days, break times, etc.

Training videos also can be used to help new employees learn more about their jobs. Cullens says it is important to meet with a new employee at the end of the first day or the start of the second day to debrief on how the day went and to answer any questions. A solid orientation experience sets up both the new hire and your company for success.

Thoroughly explain expectations in writing

Help your employees understand their roles on your farm. Job descriptions, training and timely reviews can help you do that.

When you are interviewing prospective employees, you can use job descriptions to make sure they understand what their roles and responsibilities will be on the farm. Use the job description to explain what a “day in the life” of a farm employee looks like. Are there any special requirements necessary for the job? Also, what kinds of benefits can be expected? Job descriptions should clearly outline expectations of tasks so the employee understands and is accountable for carrying out these tasks.

Job descriptions can also be a great tool to use for timely reviews of employees. Determine how often these reviews are necessary for different levels of responsibility. The more responsibility, the more often reviews should happen. These reviews can be used to tie performance to a raise. The reviews also can give feedback on performance and help employees become better at what they do. On the flip side, the documentation from reviews can also be helpful if an employee doesn’t live up to expectations. Explaining reasons for termination is often a huge issue for farms; records help.

Build up your people and your culture

Basic human interactions can make a big difference with employees. Jeff Shriver, a co-owner of J-Max Dairy in Fremont, Michigan, says employees need to know you care.

“A pat on the back doesn’t cost you anything,” he says.

That attitude is also reflected in Shriver’s herdsman, who manages the milking crew on the farm and has worked with Shriver for more than 12 years. The herdsman says each employee needs to be treated like a person, with respect, not like a robot. He said this has been the key to having a good working relationship with the employees he manages.

Make sure your farm is a place where people want to work. Word gets around, in a good or bad way. On a regular basis, take an inventory of your farm from the perspective of your employees and ask, “Would I want to work here?”

What makes your farm a great place to work? What areas do you see that need attention? How is employee morale? Do employees seem to enjoy their work? What are the most common employee complaints and what can you do to address the issues? What do employees seem to like best about their jobs? Are you intentional about developing a great culture on your farm? Are you doing a good job of explaining your values and mission as an organization?

If any of your answers are not positive, think of ways to make a difference and change the negative to a positive. In today’s workforce climate, it is more crucial than ever for farms to effectively recruit and retain quality employees. Doing so can have major impacts on your farm’s long-term success. When you invest time and effort into your people, it usually doesn’t take long for you to see the benefits.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Kristen Phillips.

Mark Case
  • Mark Case

  • Territory Manager
  • Vita Plus Corp.