Working as a teamWorking as a team

Through open communication and motivation, producers have learned the techniques for successful employee retention
January 1, 2013

All employers know that reliable, dedicated employees can positively impact the bottom line. But for many dairy producers, retaining a legal and stable workforce is challenging in today’s complex and ever-changing industry.

For dairies to retain good employees, dairy managers must be willing to motivate their employees, says Bernie Erven, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.

“By establishing a few motivational principles, producers can cut down on the cost of recruiting, hiring and training replacements by simply understanding both the employer and employee roles and showing interest in their employees whenever possible,” he says.

William deGroot, owner of Wilhelmina Dairy in Kersey, Colo., knows this all too well. When deGroot purchased his 90-acre dairy from another producer in the fall of 2008, he started with the previous owners’ 17 employees.

“During my first meeting, I announced that it was going to be a challenge to stay in business, so I would be laying off five employees,” he says. “Those who stayed would have to become more productive. It was a challenging time to be sure.”

Although he grew up on a dairy farm, deGroot accepted a job with Leprino Foods in 1999 as a supervisor responsible for overseeing the whey department expansion after graduating from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif. From there, he helped expand the cheese processing department.

While he enjoyed the job, he says his three-hour commute took its toll. After leaving Leprino, deGroot continued to work in the industry, first at an ice cream plant and then as a manager on a dairy. While managing the dairy, he stumbled upon what would become his current operation.

Since returning to the dairy industry full time, deGroot says he has had time to weigh the ups and downs of the corporate world.

“There’s no doubt that I entered into the dairy business at the worst time,” he says. “We have struggled greatly with finances; however, each time I complain, my wife asks me if I want to go back into the corporate world, to which I thank her and God for the opportunity to succeed or fail as a free man in a free country.”

To ensure his operation’s success, deGroot uses various motivational tactics from previous jobs with his employees. One of the main things he learned from his time outside the farm was that the corporate world has an edge over dairy producers, in that they can afford to offer conflict management training. With this mindset, he developed a successful training program on the dairy to retain employees and boost morale.

“There is no question that bigger operations have greater potential for profit,” deGroot says. “However, with the employee structure in larger operations, much of the personal relationship gets lost. There is simply not enough time to visit with each employee.”

Although his dairy has a relatively small workforce, the size provides him the opportunity to get to know each of his 11 employees individually.

“When you commend employees for work well done, they want to do more of it,” he says. “I recognize that I do not notice all the good things being done, but I try to talk to each employee weekly, even if it’s a simple ‘How is your family doing?’”

One of the main techniques that worked in the corporate world for deGroot was incentives. Now, by being “incentive-minded,” deGroot says his employees make an extra effort to know specifics on everything on the farm from the number of culled cows to the operation’s milk quality and milk flow per cow, and they work to improve them.

In addition, deGroot says his staff has a personal stake in the success of the farm and encourages each other to perform to the best of their ability.

“The employees here are the hands of the dairy,” he says. “If I encourage them and make them feel appreciated, they do their best. If I continually belittle them, there is no reason why they would do a better job.”

Like deGroot, Chris and Mary Kraft, owners of Badger Creek Dairy and Quail Ridge Dairy near Fort Morgan, Colo., believe in fair management practices on their operation. The couple purchased their first farm after breaking off from Mary’s family in 1985. They started with 125 cows and have expanded to more than 5,000 dry and milking cows throughout the last 27 years.

The Krafts, who are well known for their management style in and around Colorado, employ 75 full-time workers on their facilities. According to Mary, only two key employees were not trained at the dairies.

“Our longest employee has worked here for 25 years,” says Mary, who serves as the farms’ chief financial officer and human resources director. “He was with us when we first got started but left around year six. He came back soon after and said, ‘I’m yours.’ He learned very quickly that we are about respect and open communication.”

Each week, the Krafts hold a weekly meeting with their staff. During the meeting, they also incorporate 15 minutes of various leadership training programs, which they repeat every three to six months. Training can range from artificial insemination to intensive English classes to discussions on milk quality.

The Krafts have also partnered with companies such as Pfizer and Select Sires for training courses. When larger companies come in, the Krafts invite surrounding neighbors to the farm when they believe others might benefit.

In addition to weekly on-farm training, the Krafts began employee evaluations in 2004 after doubling their staff from 23 to 75. Mary, who earned her master’s degree in business administration, says she thought of the idea after reading through one of her business management magazines.

“I started thinking, ‘If we can’t measure our employees’ success, how can we manage it?’” she says.

The evaluations, which are completed twice a year, are divided into 16 categories. During the process, Mary or the employee’s direct manager rates each employee in every category from 1, unsatisfactory, to 4, superior performance.

“The results help us determine employee raises each year,” she says. “It also helps us know where our employees need improvement.”

To help with employee retention, the Krafts offer their employees two weeks of paid vacation or two weeks of extra pay after a full year of service. And to show their appreciation each year, they provide a $150 gift certificate for their employees to use at a local clothing store for winter apparel.

For 25 out of the 27 years the Krafts have been in business, employees also have received a Christmas bonus.

“There were two years when things were pretty tight, but if the budget allows it, we like to show our gratitude to our staff,” Mary says.

With the success of their own farm management practices, Mary has been speaking to dairy farm owners and their management teams at various events since 2009.

“Most dairies don’t have a human resources department because they are in the business of milking cows,” she says. “It’s hard to be people-minded. I’ve truly enjoyed getting out and sharing what I’ve learned. Being a good manager isn’t rocket science, but it does take time to develop a good system that will work for your operation.”

Like the Krafts, Steve Hanson says he’s been fortunate with his employees. Steve, along with his two sons, Derrell and Darren, oversee more than 40 employees on their 3,200-cow operation in Clovis, N.M.

During the operation’s hiring process, employees go through a rigorous training checklist to ensure they understand what is and what’s not accepted on the facility. In addition, the Hansons provide their employees with quality incentives and Christmas bonuses.

“We’ve tried to recognize the exceptional employees,” says Hanson. “I have a few employees who came with me when I moved my operation here from Texas, and they’ve worked for me now for over 20 years. I’ve also got a number who have been with me for upwards of 10 to 12 years.”

Hanson says many of his long-time employees have stuck with him throughout the years because he’s fair, offers a competitive wage and his operation is known as a good place to work.

Like Hanson, Mary has learned that employee retention is achievable if employees are encouraged and have a sense of responsibility.

“We spend a lot of time helping our employees understand that what they do is important,” Mary says. “We talk with them about the fact that they are making baby food, and that someone else’s little baby is going to be eating that, which, in turn, gives them a feeling of accountability.”

In the end, Mary says her single most important piece of advice when speaking to other producers is to have open communication. Whether it’s during a staff meeting or at the end of the day, she encourages dialogue.

“The cheapest, most effective and fastest way to keep good employees is to talk with them,” Mary says. “Regardless of your dairy’s size, have a weekly meeting with your employees. It shows that you are invested in them and allows you the opportunity to air concerns.

“It’s all about the opportunity to communicate to your guys about the goal of your business and how they can participate in your success.”