You can know cows. You can know crops. You can know the markets. But experience has shown me a dairy owner’s real success is rooted in his or her ability to manage people.
As farm numbers decrease and herd size increases, it is clear not everybody will get to farm just because Dad did. Today’s successful managers know the most valuable asset they have is their employees. When managers establish a culture of trust and order, effectively communicate expectations and provide the tools and training for employees to be successful in their individual roles, the odds of a farm’s success increase dramatically.
Management is a conscious task
Good management doesn’t just happen; a manager must consciously create the environment and team needed to be successful. I have observed these common traits in successful dairy managers:
- They trust their employees and give them room to make decisions.
- When mistakes happen, they ask, “How did I not effectively train this employee?” rather than “Why didn’t that employee do it right?”
- They honor the fact all people are different.
- They know employees are more likely to do their best when they feel managers respect and appreciate them.
- They foster a strong team atmosphere. Without this team atmosphere, individuals will take on projects with hopes of being recognized and advancing past co-workers in a pecking order. This often evolves into a situation of backstabbing and loss of trust.
Take this example: I spend a lot of time on the road, and I always seek out my favorite chain of convenience stores for my gas and morning coffee. That’s because all 350 stores across three states are always clean, the people are friendly, and the same products are organized in the same way. With literally thousands of employees, how do they make that happen?
Employees thoroughly understand what they are supposed to do. Everyone is dressed properly and work spaces are laid out for maximum efficiency and ease of getting the task done. Employee feedback is encouraged, resulting in increased efficiency from updated protocols and tools to solve specific challenges.
Over time, employees are given the freedom to make decisions that will impact profitability. Employees are also trained to train, so bad habits are shifted and good habits are recognized and built upon by local teams.
Good management starts at hiring
Most dairies have only a small pool of job candidates for a growing number of positions. In the last 25 years, it has become very common for growing dairies to hire Hispanic employees. At one time, it seemed this flow of labor was endless. That’s not the case today. The Hispanic workforce is maturing, and farms must compete with their neighbors to attract these good employees.
Hiring employees who want to do well in their job roles is the crucial first step in promoting a farm’s culture and achieving its goals. Top candidates will be drawn toward working situations where they feel most comfortable.
Stress – for both managers and employees – builds when expectations are not clearly defined. Written job descriptions not only make employees more comfortable with their expectations but also force managers to consider what must be done and how success will be measured.
The best managers use job descriptions to measure success on both sides of the labor equation. Are the expectations reasonable, and is labor realistically capable of completing all responsibilities? Work with your experienced staff to write and implement job descriptions. On a yearly basis, sit down with all employees to review and update the descriptions and adapt to changes that occur over time.
Talk to everyone every day
I have a cousin who worked for a well-known and colorful manager on a farm just outside New York City.
She said, “He made me feel like I was the most important person on the farm even though I was the lowest person on the place. Every morning, he came out when I was feeding calves and talked to me and asked me questions I knew he had to know but asked anyway. I always knew he appreciated me.”
Open and positive daily communication is essential in high-stress situations of dairy farming. Farms with the fewest labor headaches have managers and owners who walk through the parlor and talk with their employees every day. Conversely, farms where owners don’t know names or work schedules are often those with the highest turnover rates.
On too many dairies, employees perform their jobs without receiving any feedback on how they’re doing. Find people doing things well, respectfully correct actions that don’t meet expectations, seek to understand the full picture before you make a personnel decision, and show people you trust them and appreciate them.
Get people in the right seats on the bus
Personally, the biggest challenge I continue to have is deliberately delegating responsibilities. It always seems easier to do it myself than to go slow, train, re-train and accept that it’s not done exactly how I would do it. However, now that my kids have grown and moved away, I realize I’m not as good at some things as I thought I was, and they are much more talented in certain areas than I ever gave them credit for.
Have you ever had an employee who you perceived as unremarkable leave your farm and become a standout employee down the road? As Jim Collins discussed in his book Good to Great, effective managers must “put people in the rights seats on the bus” by getting to know their employees and recognizing their strengths.
Then they must step back, review the training program, delegate responsibilities and match employees with positions where their skills will shine. These employees may even do the job better than the manager who has limited time and a long list of other responsibilities.
Good employees will always matter
The need for employees will not go away. The day will likely come when most cows are milked by a self-cleaning, attaching, detaching and post-dipping milking system here in the U.S. But that doesn’t mean good management will become an unnecessary skill.
Robotic systems will still require people to manage them, and this will be a different type of employee with different skills. Although we have relied on immigrant labor for the 150 years we have sold dairy products commercially in the U.S., it is plausible that trend will slow down or end completely. Labor costs will not go down. The cost of living will not go down.
As generations are further removed from the farm, we need to do a better job of building a positive perception of our jobs and recruiting quality employees. Across the job market, it’s hard to find a job where you can personally influence the success of your company, work hours that accommodate your schedule and do something that positively impacts mankind. But we do it every day in agriculture.
Look at your local community and consider where and how you can share this message with the next workforce. Build connections with your local school district, technical college or university as well as community organizations to generate awareness of dairy farm jobs.
Spend time getting to know the interests and goals of your local workforce and consider how your dairy might already meet those interests. Perhaps most importantly, adapt your thought process and strategy as our workforce and labor needs continue to evolve. The way we farm constantly changes. The way we manage must also change.
- Dairy Field Service Specialist and Sales Manager
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- Email Peter Coyne