by Sally Colby

Although finding good farm employees is an ongoing challenge for farm employers, finding new employees is tougher than ever.

“Farms are at a competitive disadvantage with businesses in town,” said Phil Durst, Michigan State University Extension. “They can offer more – higher wage rate, signing bonus, benefits and education.”

Durst said while the dairy herd is critical to the farm, the farm business is about people. Growing a business in any way (greater profitability, new enterprise, more cows) requires a solid foundation of people.

Hiring new employees should be viewed as hiring team members. Durst advised employers to establish a predetermined hiring day in order to concentrate efforts when it’s most suitable for their already-busy schedule. By asking drop-in applicants to return for an appointment, employers can quickly determine whether candidates are reliable and interested enough to come back and show up on time.

In addition to standard information, the application should include space for the applicant to explain why they want to work at the farm and what they expect to get from the job. The application can also include the values of the business to introduce applicants to the mindset of the operation.

“We have to identify ourselves and what’s important to us,” said Durst. “The way to get employees to do what we want them to do is not with a bunch of rules. If they embody our values, we’ll have a more profitable time with them.”

Because some applicants may not look the way you expect, Durst said it’s important to wear blinders during the hiring process. “Skin color or skin ink doesn’t define a person,” he said. “People may be different in a number of ways, but if they have the right attitude, they’re willing to learn and if they’re going to be a hard worker, that’s the kind of person I want. Hire for attitude, not for pulse.”

Employee retention begins with a good employer-employee relationship, and involves communication and willingness to share values. “Open and honest communication means we share the business with people,” said Durst. “Employees appreciate transparency.” When managers work to improve the business and share information with employees, those employees become excited about their own learning, growth and competency.

Hiring new faces means developing employees. “Employees don’t come pre-made, even if they came from another farm,” said Durst. “They may not have come from a farm at all or know cows. If they come with the right mindset and need the work, you have something to work with. Be a developer of people – it is the mindset of successful dairy farmers.”

Development is more than training – it’s about cultivating better performance, better decisions and better results. Employees want to learn, but employers often underestimate this desire. They appreciate being taught, but don’t want to be told how to do everything repeatedly. “Ask them questions and listen for the answers,” he said. “Explore alternatives and consequences where you aren’t just telling them, you’re prompting them to think.”

Employees have a different and unique perspective on the business. “If we can access the ideas and perspectives of employees, they can help us understand whether things will work in practice,” said Durst. “They can point out where things aren’t being done the way we think, and they can help identify problems and potential solutions we haven’t seen or thought of.” For useful feedback, employees should know where the operation is headed, strengths and weaknesses of the operation, standard key performance indicators they should work to attain and how their performance compares to standards.

“It takes a team to run a farm,” said Durst. “Teams don’t just happen. They are built by a coaching staff who work with individuals to mold them into team players.” Family members don’t necessarily know everything about the farm, and may not always be good team players, so managers should be aware of that dynamic.

Feedback is a critical aspect of team-building, and it’s what employees crave. “They want to know how they’re doing, but we often starve them of that,” said Durst. “Provide specific, not general, positive feedback to all employees – individually.” Managers who provide positive feedback will have employees who desire to continue to do their job.

Team busters are any circumstances that cause teams to fall apart, such as a poor approach to failure. Everyone fails at some point, so Durst reminds dairy managers to not handle employees’ failures with repeated lectures. Instead, take the opportunity to challenge employees to better meet goals and reinforce values that have been shared with them. “When we have a better approach to failure,” he said, “people aren’t as afraid to fail and aren’t as afraid to try new things.”

The boss’s failure to recognize employees can break a team, as can poor working relationships among team members. Fear is another team buster that causes people to leave a job, whether it’s fear of cattle, the boss, coworkers or tasks. “A lot of employees who come to the farm today are not from farms and they don’t know cattle,” said Durst. “On day one, every new employee should take a walk through the pens with the boss. It’s a time to talk about values, how you handle cows, good animal handling practices and a time for them to get used to and understand cattle and how to approach them.”

Durst said it’s important to determine whether employees feel harassed. He suggested public discussions about how everyone is to be treated with respect, and private discussions with individual employees to ask if they’re being harassed. If someone says yes, the issue must be addressed immediately. Private discussions should be handled by same-sex personnel.

Expressing values shows what’s important to you as a manager, and teams can be strengthened through sharing values. Durst suggested teaching “why” and not just “what.” “When we tell them ‘what’ to do, we’re treating them like children,” he said. “Team members should be protected as individuals – each person is critical to the operation, has human dignity and deserves respect. Failures are inevitable but provide an opportunity for second chances. Showing mercy and using opportunities for instruction are important.”

An important priority on dairy farms is increasing labor efficiency, and Durst said willing employees can be valuable partners in this effort. “Employees are an investment that should result in greater returns,” he said. “The only way you’re going to increase labor efficiency is by understanding where you are not efficient. Ask what takes too long, what tools are lacking, what investment could remove a bottleneck.”

Durst urged employers to recognize the people who work for them, whether they’re family members or not. “Talk with employees about where they want to be in one year, two or 10 years,” he said. “Then ask what you can do to help get them there. Get to know your employees better and help them meet their dreams.”