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Smart Approaches to Leadership Responsibility on the Farm

Jan 25, 2013

Why and how to handle the differences among generations and individuals.

ChuckSchwartau photoBy Chuck Schwartau, University of Minnesota Extension

I’ve recently had the opportunity to spend extra time with multi-family farms wrestling how family members approach the business and their commitment to the work. The issue frequently makes itself known in how punctual people are about coming to work at a given time of day and sometimes whether or not the individuals are ready or capable of work when they arrive. Those are a couple pretty hefty issues and can be compounded when there are more employees on the farm.

It can be expected that generations and individuals in a family business will have different approaches to life and work. In some businesses those differences can be accommodated and managed by who is placed in particular positions and types of jobs. In other businesses, the fact of an interdependence and need for consistency make it more difficult to handle the differences.

As I worked with these families, one point I stressed is that cows are creatures of habit. They like to be fed the same time every day. They like consistency of feed. They don’t particularly like changes in pen mates, location or handling routine from day to day. Cows with consistent daily routines generally respond positively to their consistent routines.

Consistent schedules and processes are also important to the flow of work on the dairy farm. The milking crew needs a steady supply of cows ready to come into the parlor. Scraping alleys and dressing stalls is most easily done when cows are out of the pens. Cows like to see fresh feed in the mangers when they return from the parlor. All those functions, and many more, depend on people being there to do their jobs at the proper time to maintain efficiency in the dairy.

Back to the multi-family farm– how do you handle it when people aren’t on that same page of punctuality and work readiness? I think it’s fair to ask everyone a very simple question: "If a non-family employee shows up late or unfit for work, what is your response?" Most businesses will only tolerate tardiness or unfitness for work just so long before there is disciplinary action or even termination. If the employee happens to be a family member, either of those is probably unlikely, but the impact on the farm operation is the same.

Non-family employees look to family members as an example of what can be expected of them. If a family member can come to work late, why shouldn’t other employees be able to do the same? If your demeanor and behavior toward others is somewhat argumentive, why should other employees show a good attitude toward their co-workers?

The leadership shown by example of all family members will rub off on other employees, whether it is positive or negative. Responsibility and respect to family members in the business is important.
Working habits picked up by employees can and will affect the efficiency of the dairy operation and potentially the profitability of the farm. If you have to release an employee for poor work habits, it is a cost to the farm before another good employee is back in place, but perhaps the blame for the poor work habit belongs on the management team or family, not on the employee.

To put the situation into a more positive mode, the family members need to sit down together and honestly discuss the root cause of poor work habits. People need to honestly express their needs for personal time and everyone needs to discuss joint responsibility to each other and the farm.

Talk about schedules and then work on schedules to best accommodate personal needs. Not everyone can take every weekend off. Milking schedules may dictate some rotational shifts so the same person isn’t always on a midnight shift in order to supervise other staff or carry on specific tasks.

Have primary and secondary roles so tasks can be adequately covered when someone is off the roster. Emphasize that when someone is on the roster for given days and times, they have a responsibility to everyone else to be there and ready to work.

Finally, remember there is need for flexibility. Not everything in life works on a time clock. Things will come up that demand change, but if there is regular communication among all, and acceptance of individual responsibility to others as well, you can get the job done, and still have a life – and a family.

Chuck Schwartau is an Extension Educator at the University of Minnesota. Contact him at

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