The people side of milk quality

4/19/2014 7:00 AM

MSU educators discuss employee buy-in, employer challenges

Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade

Special Sections Editor

GRANTVILLE, Pa. — Milk quality is more than just the cows, it’s the farmer and their employers. Generating employee buy-in was the take-home message from two Michigan State dairy educators at the Penn State Mastitis and Milk Quality Conference on March 26.

Phil Durst and Stan Moore spoke to a cross section of dairy producers, veterinarians and farm consultants at the Holiday Inn in Grantville, Pa.

“We know there is an increased importance of employees on dairies as farms grow,” said Durst. “If a farm is going to progress, they need to have the employees on board. Employees are going to take you to the next level.”

It sounds simple, but as he points out, most farmers do not get into dairying to manage people; they want to manage cows. Many believe they are effective communicators with their employees, but as several farm surveys from a recently-launched Extension program called “Managing Dairy Employees More Effectively” show, that may not be the case.

The project is funded through a grant from USDA-NIFA, North Central Risk Management Center. Four states, including Pennsylvania, are involved in the project. The goal is to develop recommendations for employers to improve employee management. The program contracts with the farm, surveying management and employees.

The team will look for common survey response themes and develop a report, including recommendations to employers. They will have a follow-up session to see what changes there might be, such as employee turnover rate, labor costs per hundredweight of milk and employee responses to a new survey.

The team has worked with 10 farms in Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut. The farms were larger-sized farms with a minimum of 550 cows and more than a dozen employees. The employees come from a variety of backgrounds.

The initial studies showed that these farms had a high employee turnover rate. One farm, Moore said, had a turnover rate of 111 percent. “What is the case of continuity,” he asked, when the employee force had so much instability? There are also the extra costs to the farm as the farmer has to constantly retrain employees.

Durst said the surveys showed that nearly one-third of the employee first expected to leave the farm in the next three years.

The pair said there are several problem areas that were identified by employees such as underestimating the employees desire to learn, very little training, lack of specific goals, lack of employee input and the lack of communication.

Durst and Moore said the employee survey focuses on many of the key points asking questions about education opportunities, the ability to provide feedback and communication breakdowns. Some of the responses from the employees were harsh.

When communicating with employees, they said the farmers or management were only critical, there was very little, if any, positive feedback. Moore said one respondent said, “We come here like donkey to do what we are told to do.”

Durst said farmers need to find better ways for feedback. One farm had the milking crew “grade” themselves on how they performed. Most of the time, the farmer said he agreed.

“As producers, we have trouble giving feedback,” Durst said. Setting detailed goals would benefit the farmer and employees because it clarifies key objectives for the farm.

Employees, saying there was very little opportunity to provide feedback at these farms, noted communication breakdowns. Many farms had no or very few farm meetings. There was also very little opportunity to share ideas on how to improve the operation. One respondent said they have ideas, but opt to not share them because, “he thinks we are stupid. He is not open to hear new ideas.”

The pair stressed that listening is important. An employee idea might not work, but managers do not want to miss out on an idea that could improve work flow or milk quality.

While cows might be their passion, farmers need to build a better work environment. They suggest farmers and managers establish key performance indicators for each area of the operation, then communicate those aspects to employees and provide training. Also, facilitate communication between and with employees.

From a consulting role, they realize things also have to change. The classic consulting model is to speak with the farmer. And while the farmer might agree with the consultant, without employee buy-in, the idea will generate very little traction. He said veterinarians can be very helpful with these areas because they have a working relationship with many of the employees and can help with employee training.

Farmers need to listen to their employees. “It’s too easy to just think they are just the people in the parlor. We need to value them as individuals,” Durst said. “Managers need to humble enough to listen. And wise enough to take it into consideration and act on it.”

Moore said they are still looking for additional Pennsylvania farms to participate in the program.

For more information on the employee management study, contact Durst at durstp<\ LS... people side

Photo by Charlene Shupp Espenshade

Stan Moore listens as Phil Durst explains the importance of listening to employees.

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