by Sally Colby
Mary Kraft is the owner, CFO and human resource director for a large western dairy farm, but what she knows about maintaining an effective work force applies to operations of all sizes. Kraft was raised on a 500-cow dairy, and now manages 5,000 cows with her husband Chris.
“You have to come up with what you want people to do before you can get them to do what it is you’re after,” said Kraft, who lives on the farm. “I can hear everything that goes on. I can tell when the cows weren’t fed on time, I can tell when the cows weren’t milked on time, and I can tell when there’s a fly problem.”
The family-owned and operated farm has grown to the point of requiring 75 full-time workers, but Kraft likes to say that the farm is a 75-family farm because all of the employees are treated as part of the family. Kraft says that when a tornado ripped through the farm in 2009, employees who had already worked a full shift didn’t think twice about working together to collect and care for 700 confused, wet calves that had been displaced from hutches during the storm.
The herd is on a 3x milking schedule and about 30 calves are born each day. There’s a lot of technology in place, including electronic I.D., a dedicated hospital and an intensive reproduction program. “But the most important thing is the people we have,” said Kraft. “We spend a lot of time and energy cultivating them.”
The farm owner must decide whether or not they want and need employees, and if someone is willing to work with them. “Decide who you want doing the work,” said Kraft. “Decide what your protocols are and what programs you need. If you don’t know what those are and don’t write them down, how do you expect your employees to know what they are?” To ensure accurate communication with her Hispanic work force, Kraft hires a Spanish-speaking high school student to help with language barriers at meetings.
Kraft compares passing the care of cattle to untrained employees to allowing employees to borrow personal vehicles. “You aren’t going to give your Cadillac or Hyundai to an employee but you’re going to give them one million dollars worth of cattle to care for without the operator’s manual? To me that’s crazy, so we spend a lot of time communicating with our employees and teaching them all the things we want them to know and what they’re supposed to do as they’re working through their job. We train, we reinforce the concepts, and we repeat it. Ultimately, we evaluate what’s going on.”
Kraft says that owners must decide whether they want to be a cow manager or a people manager. “A cow manager works by himself,” she said. “Once you become a people manager you aren’t working as much with the cows.” Kraft says that although she usually isn’t the person administering treatments such as injections, she is the one who trains others to do that task. “The people manager is communicating all the time,” she said. “If communication isn’t something you’re willing to do, your business will not grow.” The owner must also be willing to work with the inevitable mistakes employees will make, and that part of having employees involves constantly working to correct mistakes and teach new techniques.
At Kraft’s farm, managers are responsible for no more than six people. Kraft cites research indicating that a manager cannot effectively keep track of more than six people. She uses a flow chart to clearly indicate employee positions, who reports to who, and in what order reporting should be done.
Every week, an employee meeting is held for each division. “There’s a meeting for milkers, for reproduction, for calf feeding, maternity and hospital,” she said. “The meetings aren’t long; about 15 to 30 minutes, depending on what’s going on. It gives us an opportunity to have a praise party and tell people what they did well. We try to find people doing the right thing, and catch them at it.”
Kraft says positive reinforcement is far more valuable than singling out the employee who forgot to close a gate. In such a case, she might spend time talking about the value of closing gates and why it’s important that everyone is making sure cattle are where they are supposed to be.
To ensure that all employees in a given area are familiar with protocol for that area, Kraft holds classes, often teaching what seems like common knowledge. “We might do a class on how to train a fresh heifer to the dairy barn,” she said. “Heifers have never been in the barn, and it’s a scary experience. We’ll walk her through, make sure there are no cows in the alley and that no one is spraying where the cows are walking. This is intrinsic knowledge for us, but not for most of our employees. Nobody has a playbook for what they’re supposed to do on the job, and the only way they’re going to get the information is if we teach them.”