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

Your Dairy’s Team Culture Is Worth Cultivating

Aug 24, 2013

A good team is built by developing communication, trust and employee engagement. How well do your workers – and you -- measure up?

ChuckSchwartau photoBy Chuck Schwartau, University of Minnesota Extension

Any business with more than one staff person has a culture that develops around the people who are on the team. What that culture is and how it is the responsibility of the leader. A good team needs to be cultivated, nourished and developed to function at a high level and thrive into the future. How well does your leadership measure up to these qualities and functions?

Team members are much more motivated when then understand their contribution to the success of the business. A milking technician isn’t just milking cows. He/she is harvesting the result of inputs and management decisions made by several other people on the farm. Their ability to efficiently carry out that harvest and maintain the quality of that milk is essential to generating income for that business.

The feeding manager is key to providing adequate nutrition to the cows for maintaining high production. They aren’t just filling up cows’ stomachs. Employees scraping manure are contributing to clean cows that can produce clean milk. They are contributing to the comfort and safety of animals and people around the barn. If the people don’t see the larger picture of how they all interact, they are less likely to put a high value on their task.

Be sure the staff knows what is expected of them. If the owner/manager does not communicate high expectations, the employees may come to think getting a job done to a minimal standard is acceptable when you really want top quality.

Communicate your appreciation to your staff. If you don’t tell your staff they are doing a good job, they don’t know whether they are doing well or not. Everyone appreciates a little praise for a job well done. It doesn’t take a lot. Even a few sincere words of thanks or praise can be the motivator to push many people to even higher performance. Do it frequently and be sincere. Look for opportunities to praise, don’t just wait for them.

As knowledge and skills of employees increase, give them the opportunity to be involved in decision-making. Those who are actually doing the job on a daily basis are the ones who can contribute a great deal to decisions affecting their part of the dairy. They are the ones who know how something works now, and often know how it could work better. Give them the chance to offer suggestions or work on a team to look at options. If they offer a suggestion that makes sense, also give them the chance to help implement it. They will take greater ownership of a task when they have been involved in designing and implementing it.

Demonstrate Trust
As employees are prepared and able, give them greater responsibility on the farm. Don’t over-extend an employee to the point they are likely to fail, but give them the opportunity to be in charge of some part of the operation for which they can make decisions and follow through without managers constantly checking up to see how a job is done. Show your employees you really trust them and you very likely have employees who will not let you down. Your employees are just like you. They want to improve their lives and the lives of their families. When you show trust and add appropriate responsibilities, it increases their self-esteem and may enable them to earn more while still making money for the farm.

When they are ready, show the staff you really trust them by taking a vacation and leaving key employees in charge. Even if it is for only a couple days, it will demonstrate your faith in their ability to operate the farm in a satisfactory manner.

Continue Building Your Team
A strong team isn’t just established and then left alone. Athletic teams practice all season to improve. They don’t stop training at the end of training camp. Neither does the team’s success hinge on individual performances, but rather team coordination and effort. Your team training can’t stop either. On a regular basis, engage your team in discussions and exercises that help keep them thinking toward a stronger and more effective team on the farm. Sometimes it might be formal exercises and training programs and other times it might be a group social event in which they get to know and understand each other better.

Don’t forget to keep building your own skills as a manager. Just as the team can’t stand still and keep a good, profitable farm operating, the management team needs to continue building its own skills to stay ahead of its effective team. Look for opportunities and invest in them. The free workshop with a free lunch besides may be attractive, and it might even offer an idea or two, but to truly develop yourself, an investment of your time and probably a few dollars will be well spent in the long run.

Build the Culture
Don’t just observe the work on your farm, but also the interactions of workers and you will learn both the culture on your farm and ways in which you may be able to do more to develop a culture of pride and success on your farm.

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

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