When I returned to my family farm a couple years ago, my mother gladly gave up her role of managing employees. Since I had the opportunity to work off the farm for several years, I thought I knew what to do. I mean, I was a new hire myself in a new place with no previous experience.

Bender christine
Owner and Herd Manager / McFarlandale Dairy LLC
Christine Bender is a sixth generation dairy farmer from Watertown, Wisconsin. She and her husban...

I know what it’s like and what to do, right? Well, little did I know that did not qualify me to manage a team of eight people comprised of mostly Hispanics (some non-English-speaking), ranging from less than three months’ employment to 12 years.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes and would like to share some of my own stories for your enjoyment, and hopefully you can learn a thing or two along the way.

1. Don’t skip the interview process

I don’t think I’m the only person out there who has been desperate for help. We have a zero-tolerance policy: If you don’t come to work when you’re scheduled and don’t find someone to replace you, you’re fired. So when someone doesn’t show up, and we can’t get a hold of them, suddenly we are desperate for help.


Many times, when we are looking for help, we ask our current employees if they know of anyone looking for work and ask them to come ASAP. If they’re willing to work, we have a job for them with few questions asked. Through my experience, I’ve learned when we hire people this way, it usually doesn’t turn out well.

2. Do the new-hire paperwork

For many years, our new-hire paperwork consisted of the person completing a W-4 so we could pay them. Since taking over employee management, I have all employees sign several documents as a new hire that help them understand some of our policies, including the humane treatment of animals, cell phone usage and time-clock policy. They’re available in English and Spanish, and easy to read. Make the time to sit down with each new employee and discuss your expectations and complete the documents.

3. Do offer a farm tour

Don’t be in too much of a hurry to give your new employee a full tour of your business. I recently listened to a webinar on managing people, and there was a new-hire checklist I would really like to implement on our farm. It includes so many simple things we commonly overlook because we’re busy and in a hurry.

This list includes but is not limited to: showing and talking to them about where to park, bathroom, break room, barns, meeting the owners, meeting their teammates, etc. Here’s a funny story about why this is important.

One night, I received a phone call from one of our milkers telling me she was at the farm alone and the other employee didn’t show up. I immediately hung up the phone and tried to call the other person. After several tries and no answer, I called the woman back and let her know I was on my way.

I asked if she could get the first pen of cows and get started since it was already 15 to 20 minutes past our normal start time. She told me she had never been in the barn, and my jaw dropped to the seat of the car. I couldn’t believe she had never been past the holding area. Heck, she had worked for us for several months already. Big failure on my part. Give every employee a tour of the whole farm. One day, you’ll be happy you did.

4. Do ongoing training. Don’t think someone else will train.

For many years, we had the previous person train the person to replace them before vacating their position. For our milkers, we’ve always relied on the current team to train them. It’s easy and convenient for me because I don’t have to do much regarding training.

However, the downside is when I see a new employee not doing something I’d like them to do, and I ask them if they know they’re supposed to do this, and they say, “No.” I feel like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place because I don’t know if they truly didn’t learn it or they’re just trying to avoid a confrontation. Don’t just think someone else will train your employees. Take the time to work with new employees, and have clear written protocols and diagrams they can easily reference.

5. Do employee reviews

But don’t have a new person in their position conduct reviews for people who have been there longer than them. Yes, I did this. I was on the job less than a month and conducted employee reviews for the first time on our farm. I called everyone in individually and gave them three things they’re doing well and one thing we wanted them to do better. Long story short: It didn’t go well.

Give some thought to employee reviews. This past year, I gave out a questionnaire prior to sitting down with them. I learned this takes some of the pressure off them because I’m asking more about what we can do for them and ensuring they’re happy with their job.

After all, happy employees usually come to work, enjoy their work and do a better job. I’ve also learned this is a wonderful time to offer raises and bonuses. People tend to leave happy after hearing they’re getting a raise and being given a cash bonus.  end mark

Christine M. Bender