By Travis Thayer, Diamond V
Two unhealthy human resource situations have been prominent problems in several of my farm visits recently. They are far from the only deterrents to successful employee management, but they are two really big ones that negatively influence the culture on your farm and kill employee morale.
Most recently, they emerged on a recent trip to a large dairy farm in the Midwest. Regardless of the size of your farm, they are important to keep in mind, and failure to address them can seriously harm your bottom line, or worse.
I had previously done some employee training on this farm, and the owners (a husband and wife), veterinarian and nutritionist were struggling with employee turnover and compliance. There was previously a major equipment breakdown in the parlor, and this contributed to a large number of cows in the hospital with mastitis. I was asked to work with key management staff to try to sort out what some of the barriers were to communicating and ensuring proper procedures to milkers and other employees who reported to them.
There are two key managers on site -- one of them speaks enough English to communicate with the owners, and the other does not. The English-speaking employee is used extensively by the owners to give feedback to the employees. The owners are frustrated that the employees are not following procedures in the way they would like them to. As I spoke to employees in different areas on the farm, including the middle managers that truly make the dairy work, it was clear that most employees on the farm lacked clarity on what was expected of them, leading to breakdowns in procedure in nearly every position.
There were multiple areas in which lack of clarity on standard operating procedures was hurting this farm, but the most glaring was in hospital parlor procedure. The employees were following a standard treatment protocol. Their procedures as far as udder prep, milking, and treatment were adequate, but after the treatment regimen was complete, many mastitis cows ended up staying in the hospital because employees were unclear what to do with cows that don’t respond to treatment, or even how to evaluate what treatment success is. Cows that had already been treated without success were just being milked and the mastitic quarter was stripped, and no decision was being made on further treatment, culling, drying up quarters, etc.
As a result, many cows were entering the hospital and few were returning to the milking strings. The employees were doing what they were asked as far as treatment, because a clear protocol was in place, but they did not know what to do beyond that as far as evaluating treatment effectiveness and next steps.
This breakdown on communication was everywhere on the farm, and affected multiple departments. The owner and vet are going to spend more time in the hospital parlor with the employees so that they can give more specific feedback on what to do with problem cows. As I looked at other areas on the farm, the same theme popped up, even as the owner was expressing frustration to me that the employees “should know this stuff.” Yet, when I asked more questions, it became clear that employees in most areas did not have access to written procedures in English or Spanish, and had not been through any sort of formal training program other than “hang out with this guy - he will show you what to do.”
In a previous article I wrote about job descriptions, and I referenced an online tool from Pennsylvania State Extension [http://www.ahg.com:8180/PSUJobDescription/] that dairies can use to create and customize job descriptions. The site leads you through the steps to create a job description in a variety of areas, and using the info you have entered, it generates an editable word document that can be further customized to fit your needs. Once the job description is created, it can be easily translated into Spanish or another language as appropriate.
Along with clear protocols, creating a job description and reviewing it with employees periodically is a great way to provide clarity on employer expectations. It also helps to provide specific criteria that you can use to evaluate employees for performance reviews. Job descriptions for key middle manager roles in which the employee is managing multiple areas are particularly crucial. Losing an employee like this with no inkling of all the tasks they are doing on a daily basis is especially devastating, as many things that they were doing may have gone unnoticed, and when they leave, those things slip through the cracks. It takes more time to create these job descriptions, as the employee needs to be involved to make sure that all of their duties are adequately represented in the description. However, this is time well spent, and can prevent many problems if the employee moves on and a replacement is hired or moved from another area.
The other big issue I found on this farm was pay disparity between different employees of similar status and time employed on farm. For example, one employee had been working for several months and had been hired at a specific pay rate. He had been asked to move out of the milking parlor and work in maternity. After the employee got hired and moved out of the parlor, the starting pay for milkers was raised to a level above that which he was making, and his salary was never increased to compensate for this. Similarly, some employees had received raises after a short period of time, where other employees that had been there longer had not, without any explanation. If the raises had been tied to performance reviews, and employees received feedback that they did not get a raise because they are deficient in some aspects of the job, that would be understandable.
But the way in which compensation was changed was arbitrary and haphazard, and it was killing morale. The employees talk among themselves about pay, and the ones who felt they got shorted were frustrated and not doing the best job they could, which costs the dairy more money and time than if they just spent the time and made sure everyone was treated equally and fairly.
After the parlor breakdown earlier this year, many cows died. Referencing this, one employee told me the dead cows were “karma” for the owners’ poor treatment of employees. This situation is really serious, and is going to require some major fixes in employee management. This dairy would really benefit from job descriptions, clear protocols, more regular training and review of procedures, and formal performance reviews. The veterinarian, nutritionist and local Diamond V team member are working together with the owners to make this happen.
Employees want to know what is expected of them and how to improve, and they want to feel that they are being treated fairly. Neither of these needs of fairness and clarity was being met on this farm, and they are suffering greatly because of it. I sure hope they can get to a better place with their employees soon and get back to worrying about cows. Is this happening on your farm?
Travis Thayer, DVM, is a Dairy Technical Trainer with Diamond V. Contact him at 510-910-3126 or firstname.lastname@example.org.