How Wisconsin’s John Pagel learned to successfully handle more cows and more people.
At some point in every expanding dairy’s growth, you will have to formalize how you manage employees with full-blown job descriptions, regular employee meetings and job performance reviews.
For John Pagel, of Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy LLC, Kewaunee, Wis., the tipping point came when he upped cow numbers from 1,500 to 3,650 cows in 2009. At 1,500 cows, he was already managing 65 employees. But that number shot up dramatically when he grew cow numbers 145%. Currently, he employs 140 employees to milk 5,000 cows, manage 5,200 replacements and farm 8,500 acres.
"At 1,500 cows, we thought we knew what we were doing. But when we more than doubled our herd size in 2009, we found out that we didn’t," he says.
He soon learned there was no way he could manage that many employees by himself. "I now manage eight managers and they manage 120 people," he says.
Now, he has a mission statement, organization chart, employee manual, job descriptions, a mentoring program for new employees, formalized job and safety training, and follow-up programs to shortcut seemingly inevitable procedural drift. He has a 6:30 a.m. managers’ meeting Monday through Thursday each week to discuss what’s happening each day. The managers, in turn, keep their crews in the loop.
"Before, my phone was constantly ringing all day long with things people needed. Now we discuss things in the morning and plan our days," he says. For example, northeast Wisconsin has been deluged with rain all spring. These "rain days" have left his cropping crew idle, but it has allowed those employees to help out with facility and equipment maintenance.
On good weather days when corn needs planting or alfalfa needs harvesting, his maintenance crew is shifted over to help with field work. That might have happened before, but with daily meetings and a formal chain of command, the work flows more smoothly.
Pagel’s employee management program is based on the tri-footed C-A-R principle: communication, accountability and respect. "It’s a program designed to let every employee know how we treat one another at the Ponderosa," he says.
• Employees are trained in communications skills, to actively listen, to be assertive (but not combative), show leadership and respect others.
• They are also expected to be accountable. "That means showing up on time every day and being ready to work," says Pagel. "It doesn’t matter if the Packers beat the on Vikings Sunday, come Monday morning employees need to be ready to work."
• Every employee must be treated with respect, and in turn, treat everyone else with respect. Example: A milker is not only a milker. "At Ponderosa Dairy, a parlor technician is one of the most important jobs on the farm," says Pagel.
Pagel readily admits that his approach isn’t foolproof, and he still deals with his share of employee issues. "Taking care of employees is an ongoing process and it will go on forever," he says. But he now has a formalized system in place that works reasonably well and keeps chaos to a manageable minimum.
Pagel spoke at the VitaPlus Calf Summit in LaCrosse, Wis., last week. A preview of his talk can be found here.