Finding employees for your dairy operation can be tough, and retaining the staff you already have can sometimes be an even bigger challenge.

Barge emily
Communications and Marketing Manager / Center for Dairy Excellence

Dairy managers are often pulled in multiple directions, and you might feel there aren’t enough hours in the day to communicate your expectations, outline your policies and procedures, and reinforce positive behavior among employees. If you’re looking for a clear-cut way to communicate your expectations and create a fair work environment, an employee handbook is a great way to do that.

According to Rich Stup, with Cornell Extension Agricultural Workforce Development, creating an employee handbook that’s tailored to your operation can help farms provide staff with clarity, consistency and professionalism. It can also help your operation comply with state and federal laws.

“Farms are putting handbooks in place to better communicate and to have clarity about the policies and procedures they have in place,” Stup said during the Pennsylvania Center for Dairy Excellence “Transforming Your Team: Employee Communications & Management’ webinar series. “Employees appreciate having a fair work environment with fair treatment. If we have written policies that are clear, we are much more likely to be consistent and treat people fairly from one incident to another.”

Employee hanbook development process

Elements to include in your handbook

Stup shared several elements unique to dairy farming that should be included in an employee handbook – and how the handbook can be used as a communication tool over time.

  • A welcome statement often sets the tone for an employee handbook. It could explain the purpose of the handbook and may also remind readers that it is not a contract of employment.

  • Goals and mission statements. This could include the mission and history of your dairy operation. It might include an organization chart that outlines family members, partners, managers and departments.

  • Stance on teamwork and cooperation. Stup encouraged dairy owners to be clear about how you want employees to interact.

“You want people to work together well, create a professional environment and create an opportunity where everyone can be successful. Positive attitude and good team communication is important,” he said.

  • Animal care policies. This section should be a short explanation of animal care policies that employees are expected to follow.

“If you’re having employees sign animal care ethics agreements, you don’t necessarily have to include the full agreement in the handbook,” Stup explained. “But it could very well be mentioned in the handbook as a separate policy to communicate that someone might be signing an agreement when they start.”

  • Harassment and safety policies. An employee handbook should outline your policies on harassment prevention and farm safety. It should explain how your supervisors and managers will respond to harassment, unsafe behavior and any other actions that could hold the operation liable.

Related to that topic, managers and supervisors must be trained to recognize any harassing situations and report them to owners to be discussed and resolved.

  • Personal phone calls and texting guidelines. While there is no particular law that regulates the use of cellphones and personal devices at work, an employee handbook is a good place to communicate your expectations, especially if it can impact their ability to hear farm equipment.

“The situations [with phones] can vary considerably, and there are a lot of complications to work through. In my experience, some of the most successful employers have not gone the route of totally prohibiting cellphones. Instead, they try to encourage break times for using cellphones and not abusing work time with personal calls and texts,” Stup said.

  • Company tools and equipment use requirements. Some dairy owners let their employees use tools and equipment, while others have different requirements. Consider a handbook section that clarifies your expectations.

  • Safety in the workplace plans. The handbook can be a good place to outline what your farm safety expectations are. If you have signs, tools or resources that encourage farm safety, include a description on where employees can find those. OSHA safety committees could benefit dairy operations by creating opportunities to adjust insurance premium costs lower.

  • Visitor and customer guidance. Most dairy farms have a lot of regular traffic from a wide range of individuals. Provide employees with guidance on what to do if a stranger arrives.

  • Definition of employee groups. Clarify what you define as a full-time employee on your operation and what is considered part time or seasonal.

  • Pay concerns. Your employee handbook should have a section that outlines how employees get paid and when. It should explain how they record their hours and who they should contact if they have a pay concern. Make sure you explain the pay stub, including deductions, especially if you have a multilingual workforce.

  • Time off from work. Some dairy farms may offer vacation time, while others have sick leave. It’s important to document your expectations for how much time off employees receive and how they should request a day off.

  • Employee discipline. Stup encouraged owners to list certain actions or behaviors that will result in discipline.

  • Performance reviews and promotions. How do you give feedback? Make sure to include a section on performance reviews along with your policy on raises and promotions.

Best practices and final tips

When finalizing your document, Stup clarified that job descriptions and standard operating procedures do not belong in employee handbooks. Avoid including procedures such as how to milk cows or feed calves, and focus more on your overall policies. Since a lot of the policies included in employee handbooks are items you need to communicate when someone is hired, Stup suggested providing the handbook during onboarding.

“Make your handbook a useful document to help you in the onboarding process to communicate with employees. You can use it as a communication tool with employees to share updates and notices,” he shared.

It’s also helpful to offer refreshers throughout the year and let employees know when you make changes to the handbook or policies.

“As you meet throughout the year or when you have a team meeting, just take five minutes to take one policy and talk about it. It could be something that came up that you want to review and make sure everyone is clear about it,” Stup suggested.

Employee handbooks will change over time, and it’s important to keep yours up-to-date with your evolving operation. With state laws changing regularly, Stup recommended having your labor attorney review it every three years.  end mark

This article is provided for information purposes only. Readers should consult their own professional advisers for specific advice tailored to their needs. Information contained in this article may be subject to change without notice.

  • Emily Barge

  • Communications and Marketing Manager
  • Center for Dairy Excellence
  • Email Emily Barge