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Conflict in the dairy isn't always between the boss cow and the timid one

Chuck Schwartau
Extension Educator-Livestock
March 4, 2011

Over the past couple years, how often have you heard someone say, "$15.00 milk prices would take care of a lot problems in the dairy industry"? For some farms, the $15.00 figure might be different, but a lot has been tied to a better milk price helping to solve a lot of ills. Well, near future milk prices have gone as high as $18.00 in the past months, but there are still a lot of pressures and stresses on the farm. Those pressures are generally on the farmer, but they may be expressed by words and actions directed toward others on the farm.

Several recent calls and consultations have revolved around conflict between owner/managers and employees (even family members as the employees). Some stressor has been working on the owner/managers that causes them to see even small issues about employees as reasons for major confrontations.

How these conflicts are resolved can make the difference between whether an employee stays on the farm or leaves. If an employee has historically been an excellent employee and now decides to leave, this loss can be costly in many ways. There can be lost productivity, overtime for other employees, and costs involved in hiring replacements. Not all of these are out of pocket costs but still are costs to the farm.

How can you handle conflicts on your farm? Conflicts have several common characteristics:

There are many conflict resolution models, but here are some common strategies for dealing with conflict.

Steps for Resolving Conflict

Step # Method Specific Action
Step 1 Problem identification Identify each person’s reasons or motives for the conflict.
Step 2 Problem diagnosis Look at all the factors in the conflict. Look at personality styles of the people involved.
Step 3 Generate alternatives for resolution Come up with different ideas to improve or change the behaviors that caused the conflict.
Step 4 Decision making Compare the ideas and decide what provides the best alternative.
Step 5 Tactical planning Brainstorm and write a specific action plan to go with the decisions made in Step 4.
Step 6 Implementation Carry out the plan and follow up regularly.

Sometimes even these strategies and steps don't resolve the issue. It might be because the personalities of the people in conflict add to the complexity of the issue. Then it may be necessary to call in a mediator to help guide the discussion. A mediator is not one to decide the issue and declare a resolution, however. A mediator should be able to help clarify what is causing the conflict, better define the conflict from each party's perspective, and guide the parties to a resolution that is based on positive outcomes—not just power of one individual over another. A desirable resolution is one that has each party understanding the other's position, determining where they can agree and what common ground they can use to move ahead. It also strives to avoid creating further conflict by a feeling that there was a 'winner' and a 'loser' in the resolution. 'Winners' and 'losers' are more likely to lead to more conflicts in the future as they try to even the score.

An excellent source for more information about conflict management is an on-line book written by Gregario Billikopf, University of California Extension. The book is titled, Party Directed Mediation, and is available at without cost. You can read individual chapters or download the entire book if you desire.

Further information about communications on the farm is available in Employment Skills for Today—Planning for Success (University of Minnesota Extension, 2011). A copy of this notebook may be obtained by contacting Chuck Schwartau, Extension educator at

Resolve conflict before it gets out of hand.

[Material adapted from "Employment Skills for Today '98", University of Minnesota Extension, and "Employers Handbook for Agriculture and Horticulture", Ontario Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs.]

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