The government has long considered farm work as unskilled labor. It is lumped into that category without differentiation to the commodity or the necessary proficiency involved. Picking strawberries, sorting potatoes, filling grain bins, milking cows, topping corn, packaging lettuce, thinning apples, feeding cattle or riding fencelines are all pushed to the blanket statement of unskilled for the sake of labor economists’ data. And yet, those of us in the industry, well, we know better.

Louder erica
Freelance Writer
Erica Louder is a freelance writer based in Idaho.

We might accept that categorization for the sake of the government data, but we don’t take unskilled at face value. Farm employees and their daily tasks often require a level of understanding, aptitude and ability that could hardly be completed effectively if one just pulled a person off the streets. The best farmworkers are skilled laborers. But they rarely walk on the farm skilled – they are trained.

No other industry in agriculture better understands this than dairy. Amid a decade-long labor shortage, dairy farmers recognize the importance of training their employees, both informally and formally. And they are leaning on their veterinarians, county extension agents, nutritionists and other consultants to support and carry out these trainings.

Going beyond the feeder school 

Tevan Brady, a consultant with Standard Dairy Consultants, and Danny Salas, a graduate student at the University of Idaho and intern with Standard Dairy Consultants, are regularly asked by their dairy clients to complete employee training on a myriad of topics, from managing silage face to treating calves to feedbunk management.

“Historically, in the dairy nutrition space, we’ve used the term feeder schools to describe the only kind of training we do, but what I do on the dairies goes beyond that generic term,” Brady says. “I’ve never actually done what you’d call a feeder school. I want to support the operation holistically – yes, a lot of the training may be around the feed, but we look to go beyond the feeder school and really dig into what the farm and employees need.”


'Holding the training in Spanish is key'

In communication, the number one rule is to know your audience. Both Brady and Salas are fluent in Spanish, and all the employee trainings they’ve completed in their careers have been in Spanish, which they’ve found is critical for the success of dairy employee training.

“Holding the training in Spanish is key,” Brady says. “There are a lot of workers that do understand English, but they’d prefer Spanish. When I go to a dairy and start talking to an employee, the first thing I ask is, ‘Do you prefer English or Spanish?’ And nine times out of 10, they'll say Spanish. Being able to complete training in their native language means we don’t need to question their comprehension of the material."

According to Salas, completing the training in Spanish isn’t just about comprehension – it's about building trust and rapport with the employees.

“When someone like me or Tevan can show up and speak Spanish to them, they're better able to understand what we are saying, they're going to ask more questions, and they're going to engage better with us,” Salas says. “A lot of times, what we have noticed is if someone is speaking English to them and says, ‘Hey, we want you to change this or do this differently,’ the workers think they're in trouble, they did something wrong, and that we are angry at them. That’s not the case at all, and we want to avoid that perception by using Spanish.”

When to consider employee training

In the interest of building skilled dairy employees, when should you consider employee trainings? The general answer to that question widely differs, but simply put, they should be held regularly. You should train your employees formally on a regular basis – be that monthly, quarterly or as new employees are onboarded. Brady says that he has some clients who have him complete a training once a quarter for specific areas on the dairy and others who are less scheduled, and he does them as needed.

Regular training is important to building skilled dairy employees who can deal with the challenges of a modern dairy operation. Here are a few of Brady’s and Salas' suggestions on when to consider if you need another employee training.

Procedural drift or problem correction

Procedural drift is the difference between the written standing operating procedures and what actually happens on the farm day to day.

Salas says this is something they see often in feed management.

“In the industry, we say there are always four feed rations,” he says. “There's a ration that the nutritionist formulates, the ration that the feeder makes, the ration that gets fed to the cows and finally, the ration that the cows absorb. The nutritionists will formulate and present the best ration possible. And then it's up to the feeder to make that ration as closely as possible, ideally following all the correct procedures. And if they start taking shortcuts, if they're going too fast, or if they're just trying to go home early, we're not going to be able to get that perfect ration that these cows need, and that will be reflected in milk production.”

Brady agrees.

“When something like that happens, we will notice a change in the production data, breeding benchmarks or whatever it might be,” Brady says. “We then decide training is needed because we've drifted away from our normal procedures. We discuss it with the farmer, and together come up with a topic to train on with the goal to bring people back in line to make sure that we're doing things right and that they understand why we do things that way.”

New employees or large turnover in a specific department 

Training is often needed simply because you have new employees who need to be taught the skills and procedures of your operation.

“Workers come and go,” Brady says. “I hate to say it, but we have a high employee turnover rate in the dairy industry, and that is a reality. When considering training, a farmer or the manager needs to ask these questions: How many new guys do we have working for us? Is that the reason for the procedural drift or this problem? Were they here for the last training? If they weren’t, we need to get the entire team back to square one, and that generally means it’s time for a training or refresher.”

Help employees know the importance of their job

When he is training employees, Salas likes to remind employees of the importance of their jobs in the larger picture of the farm.

“When I am talking to an employee or a group of employees at a training, I tell them, ‘You have a very crucial role, and we are training you because you are a key component to this operation. How we manage feed is directly connected to milk production, and how we handle calves and heifers is connected to their growth and development,’” Salas says. “It's important to show them those connections. Communicating this gives them a sense of their role on the farm and their role in the wider industry.”

Brady adds, “There are a lot of things that people do right on a dairy. These trainings don’t all need to be about problem correction. I try to make sure to point out all the good things they are doing – a little praise can go a long way. A lot of times, people come onto the dairy, and they only talk about the things they are doing wrong and need to improve. We need to avoid the tendency to bypass their good work. Doing so can leave them defeated or defensive.”

Other times to consider employee training

  1. You are establishing new SOPs.
  2. You need to meet processor requirements.
  3. You are setting new operational goals.
  4. You need to reinforce employee safety.

Monitoring employee comprehension

Employee engagement

Brady says there are two ways he monitors employee comprehension of the topic. The first is the level of engagement of the employees during the training.

“How the employees engage with me during the training is a major indicator to me if they comprehend the topic,” he says. “Are they all quiet, or are we having an open dialogue? Do they have questions? Are they asking for clarification? I’ll ask questions about what they are doing or seeing in the job as related to the topic to create conversation. Their responses give me a good idea of how they are understanding.”

Analyzing the data

The second way Brady monitors employee comprehension is through data – the numbers don’t lie.

“We are usually training in the first place because the data indicated things were out of whack,” Brady says. “We will monitor a specific benchmark, the number of treatments in calves or feed pushbacks before and after that training, and then continue monitoring – are the numbers getting better, getting worse, staying the same? That’s a pretty good indicator of whether the training was effective and when it is time to revisit the topic in new training.”

Final thoughts  

Transitioning a dairy from an employer of unskilled farmworkers to an employer of competent, skilled employees is a task of the modern dairy farm, and as long as you have employee turnover, it will be a career-long task. Fortunately, there are resources and support out there for farms. Talk to your trusted advisers, like your nutritionist and veterinarian, to establish a regular employee training plan.

“Well-trained employees can make our lives easier, the dairyman’s life easier and their lives easier,” Salas says. “At the end of the day, the dairy producer, the nutritionists and the employees – we're all one team. It's not one person above the other. Together, our one goal is to produce milk in the safest, most efficient way possible. Training the people who are directly integrated in that goal only makes sense.”

Erica Louder contributed this article on behalf of Standard Dairy Consultants.

11 quick training tips

  1. Ask questions and create opportunities for dialogue.
  2. Avoid making the employees feel like they are in trouble.
  3. Praise the employees for all the good things they are doing.
  4. Focus on the key employees/jobs.
  5. Use examples and pictures from their dairy.
  6. Build employee safety into the training.
  7. Keep it simple by keeping the science to a minimum and focusing on the skills.
  8. Prepare your material in Spanish and English, so you have something to give the dairy producer or farm manager after the training.
  9. Don’t be afraid to retrain on the topic as much as needed.
  10. Be respectful of the employees' time.
  11. Bring lunch!