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Extension > Agriculture > Dairy Extension > Labor/Employees > Is the problem the employee or the employer?

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Is the problem the employee or the employer?

Chuck Schwartau
Extension Educator-Livestock

April 28, 2012

During a recent dairy farm visit, the dairyman expressed his dissatisfaction with an employee. He thought this employee had a pretty good handle on things around the farm since he had grown up on a farm and worked on other farms before coming to this particular farm. The employer's confidence in the employee had been shaken by an incident a few days earlier so now there was question whether this employee was really worth keeping around.

What happened to raise the question?

The employee had been instructed to grease a piece of equipment. When the employer came to the equipment later he found several grease points that hadn’t been cleaned and greased. The first, and most common, reaction was to confront the employee with these missed points and become rather critical of the thoroughness of his work.

At this point a couple of us in the group stopped the discussion and asked a few questions. Were the missed grease zerks in obvious places or obscure places on the machine? Had the employee been trained how to service and maintain this piece of equipment? Had the employee been given the opportunity to watch the farmer perform the task and then perform it himself under supervision to see whether he had the routine mastered? In short, was the employee given the opportunity to be successful? This problem is common on farms so this farmer certainly wasn’t alone with his situation.

When there are employee performance problems on the farm, a lack of training or follow-up is often the cause. In this case the farmer assumed that since the employee had previous experience, he would know exactly what to do on this farm. In reality, probably the only thing truly the same from one dairy to another is that they both have cows (unless one is a goat dairy!). The equipment on each farm can be quite different. Dairy operators have different ways they want similar tasks conducted. Every little task can have its own peculiar process making it different from any other farm.

How do you avoid this problem? Training.

Regardless of the experience an employee brings to the farm, you must take time to orient and train every employee to the systems and protocols of your dairy. This is more than a 10 minute, once over with the employee. It means spending time with the employee yourself or assigning the new employee to another trusted and experienced employee who will be their trainer and mentor. This time can commonly last a week or more, and should include the opportunity for the new employee to ask for reinforcement and clarification without consequences or criticism. If you make the employee comfortable asking questions when they are in training, they are more likely to come to their supervisor later when they have questions or suggestions. This time will set a pattern for future communications among staff.

You cannot afford to ignore experienced employees either. In time we all tend to slip up and not perform tasks quite the way they should be done or get lazy and skip steps that make the process better. Combating this "procedural slippage" requires re-training from time to time. It means going over the milking routine every few months to remind employees what you expect them to do in the parlor and why it is important. It means reminding them why the stalls need to be properly dressed every day, the alleys need regular scraping, and the cows need to be moved slowly. They need to know the reason for procedures as well as what the procedures are. They need to know the value of the process to the success of the farm.

One of the final parts of this training process is setting the example yourself. Whether you spend time working with your employees on a regular basis or only occasionally, you need to be just as diligent as you expect them to be. They will observe your work and take their lead from you. If a task isn’t seen as important to you, they will notice and soon it won't be important to them either.

The bottom line is that employees are not just a source of labor, they are an investment in making your farm more productive and efficient, but they can’t contribute if they don’t clearly know what is expected of them and are given the proper instruction to carry out the assigned tasks. Providing that clarity and instruction is up to you, the employer. If things aren't going as smoothly on your farm as you think they should, ask yourself whether the problem is the employees or you?

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