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Labor Matters

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Experts cover today’s key dairy labor issues and offer fool-proof techniques to optimize employee performance, sat­isfaction and longevity.

Beyond Cows: Managing Additional Labor

Jun 01, 2012

Bigger herds have created a new mind-set for managing people.

Gary Sipiorski VPBy Gary Sipiorski, Vita Plus Corporation
As an agriculture lender working with dairy producers, I had the opportunity to help many expand their dairies. It was critical that these dairy producers not only had the financial means to add cows and facilities, but it was important that they had the mental ability to manage additional labor.
When you think about the technical advances that have occurred, it has only been in the last 25 years. In a traditional business as the dairy business is, it has always been easy to get caught up in a rut. After all, cows are creatures of habit. They like being treated the same way every day, day after day. They do not like change. In the past, many dairy producers approached their business the same way -- with few changes. Add to that mix that many dairy producers did not want anyone else milking their cows. Then, as now, every dairy producer knows that milking time is one of the most important activities on a dairy. Cows and those doing the milking wanted that time to be as comfortable as possible.
Therefore, there was a huge mindset change for many dairy producers as they went from 80 cows to 300, 500, 1,000, 2,000, 4,000, and even more cows are coming under a single ownership. Thus, one of the first questions I always asked an expansion candidate was, “Do you like working with people”?  This question was asked even before financial statements were discussed. 
In my book this was, still is and will remain a key part of success on any dairy where more than just the owner and the family milk cows. It was interesting at times to hear some of the comments ranging from yes, to no, to “I hadn’t thought about that.” The key point is dairy producers were going from managing cows to managing people. Large dairy producers who had a few generations under their belt already understood this mindset.
So, how did the successful expand and the expanding dairy producers do it?  First, when a dairy is expanded, you cannot do all the work yourself.  Hired employees are a must. Secondly, you have to train employees and give them responsibilities without looking over their shoulders every time they make a move. Expanding producers need to understand that people want to be treated with respect, regardless of the important or menial job they are given to do.
A job description should be completed for every task on the dairy.  When employees are hired, they need to know what their job is, what is expected of them and who their supervisor will be. Questions need to be asked of potential employees regarding their skills, what they have done before and who else they have worked with. Skills have to be matched to responsibilities, such as computer skills, math skills, mechanical skills, cow care or general milkers. 
Calf-caring skills are probably the toughest to find. Generally, women have done a great job in this area, yet I have seen plenty of detailed orientated men do an outstanding job in this area as well. A probationary period should be set to evaluate the new employee to make sure he or she fits in and is capable of doing the job at hand. If people do not work out after two discussions, do not wait too long to let people go. Allow them to find another job. The worst thing you can do is hold on to the wrong people too long. It affects everyone else.
Dairy producers who know they may not be the best people-person will hire a human resource person to do the hiring, set up training and evaluate personnel. The dairy needs to be large enough to have someone like this on the payroll or it may have a family member or other key person on the dairy taking care of the personnel. 
All of agriculture relies heavily on immigrant labor. It goes without saying that proper identification and paperwork in the files are musts. I have seen a few good immigrant individuals bring in others who they know can fill the jobs and they can work with. Someone needs to have some basic bilingual abilities. There are individuals or dairy-related companies that have staff that can help out with specific training. 
There are consultants who can be hired to assist with personnel plans as well. These are people who work with other dairies and have three-ring booklets with tried and proven methods and procedures. 
There are some parts of the U.S., such as the Western States, where they have dealt with hired labor for a number of generations. Taking a trip to some of these areas has proven valuable to many successful Midwest and Eastern dairy producers who have only expanded into larger herds in the last 25 years. 
Regardless of the technology today or in the future, having hired labor will continue to be an important part of the business of milking cows. Keep sharpening your skills in this area. 
Gary Sipiorski has a long career in the banking industry, doing business primarily with dairy producers. He has been associated with the Citizens State Bank of Loyal, the Graduate School of Banking in Austin, Texas, the Independent Community Bankers of America, the Governor’s Task Force on Growing Agriculture in Wisconsin, and the Advisory Council on Agriculture, Industry and Labor for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. In 2008, he joined the Wisconsin-based nutrition firm, Vita Plus Corporation, where he is dairy development manager. Contact him at 608-250-4267 or
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