If a potential employee shows up at a dairy farm with a clean record, good references and a willingness to learn, there’s a good chance they’ll be hired. Are you sure the applicant is legitimately seeking to join your team for gainful employment, and does your farm have good training protocol in place to give the new employee the best possible opportunity for success?
When it comes to dairy farming, sometimes word-of-mouth is the best recruitment tool, but when that pool dries up, you’re likely to be interviewing people who are inexperienced with dairy farming and unfamiliar to you and your dairy neighbors. Sometimes it’s good to have someone who comes to the farm without any prior knowledge because you can train them to your methods, but there’s also the potential for hiring an animal rights activist who plans to take advantage of his position to capture photos or video to use against not only that farm but animal agriculture in general.
During the hiring process, it’s important to conduct a thorough screening on each applicant. Employers should require a written application for all positions, ask for references and follow through with checking references. Applicants’ phone number, address and other information on the application should be verified. In some cases, an applicant might provide what appears to be a good reference, but animal activist plants have been known to provide references to legitimate farms but never actually worked there.
Kay Johnson Smith, president and CEO of Animal Agriculture Alliance, suggests farm employers create a list of questions and have that list reviewed by an attorney to ensure that the questions are appropriate for the state. Questions such as full name, alternate names, current and past addresses, and college degrees may prove to be quite revealing. “Many undercover activists have worked under aliases,” she said. “They use different means to get onto farms, so ask if they have ever worked or earned a degree under a different name to see what their response is.”
Smith also suggests the application include requiring the applicant to sign a statement stating ‘all information provided on this application is true and correct under penalty of perjury.’ Be sure the applicant understands the implications of signing such a statement.
If applicants arrive on the farm with out-of-state license plates, the employer should consider ‘how did they even know my farm is here, and why are they here in this rural area looking for work?’ Stories about moving to the area for a girlfriend or boyfriend are also suspect. College students seeking internships should be thoroughly checked in the same way as all other employees.
Create a title for each position, and write a job description that clearly outlines the duties for that position. The job description should list the responsibilities included for that position as well as who he should report to. For example, if the employee feeding calves notices a calf that isn’t eating well, there should be no question about what to do next — who should be notified and when to notify them.
Training for each job should be conducted by someone who knows the job well and who is capable of working one-on-one with another individual to ensure that person understands and can perform the tasks included in the position. Trainers should be open-minded and able to work with a variety of learning styles, and be able to identify an employee who might not be a good fit for the position.
New employees should be monitored during training and for several months into the job. “Assign a trustworthy, experienced employee to keep an eye on a new employee to make sure they’re following what they’ve agreed to,” said Smith. “Hold employees accountable. If they are mistreating or mishandling animals, either retrain them, hold them accountable or fire them. You cannot afford to keep people who are not doing things right and not caring for animals properly and who don’t have your long-term best interests at heart.”
When the job entails directly working with cattle, take extra time to make sure new employees understand and are willing to follow the farm’s animal welfare protocol. If your farm doesn’t have a clearly established animal welfare protocol, now is the time to work on that and cross-train all employees for all areas of the farm. Be sure to answer questions thoroughly throughout training, and be open to questions as employees learn about others’ tasks and the importance of each job on the farm.
For employees who move cows to the milking area and/or handle milking, it’s worth the extra time to teach low-stress animal handling concepts such as the fact that cattle are prey animals and respond as such. Teach employees that cattle learn to adapt to patterns, and respond to gentle, consistent handling. Any tasks that involve handling potentially dangerous cattle or handling in confined spaces should be not be handled by an inexperienced employee. Such tasks can be a good teaching opportunity for new employees, but don’t expect those employees to perform such tasks on their own without significant training and experience.
Explain to all employees that consistent, low-stress handling results in cows that respond appropriately. If a new freestall barn has been added, or if cows have been rearranged in different facilities, make it clear that it’s a big change for the cows and that it may take time for the animals to become accustomed to the new routine.
In some cases, the way in which employees interact with management and one another says a lot about how they handle their job on the farm. For example, the employee who is impatient while talking with a spouse on the phone might also be impatient with cattle. Encourage those in management positions to quietly observe all employees for signs that they may mistreat or mishandle cattle. Video cameras throughout a facility, especially in holding or handling areas where workers are most likely to become impatient, are relatively inexpensive and can quickly reveal problem employees. Establish a reporting system by which employees can report abuse or mistreatment of livestock by other employees without fear of retaliation.
Smith says the person who is hired for a non-animal job then expresses interest in a position that involves directly working with animals can signal intent to cause harm. “Someone who asks questions about security, whether or not the farm has cameras, or the schedule of the manager,” she said. “That might be a red flag.”