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Human Resource Management and Dairy Employee Commitment

Chuck Schwartau

Published in Dairy Star May 12, 2007

You probably know of farm employees who have been on the same farm for five, ten or even more years.  You probably also know farms that can't keep an employee for more than six months.  What makes the difference?  One factor seems to be how the farm's human resource management (HRM) system is organized.

Dr. Richard E. Stup, of the Penn State Dairy Alliance, sought to learn what practices dairy farms use and the impact they have on employee commitment to the farm.  In 2005, 131 large dairies in PA, NY, MD, OH and VT completed an extensive survey of their HRM practices.  At the same time, 201 employees on those same farms responded to a corresponding survey about their attitudes toward the business where they worked. 
Dairy employers were asked about several HRM practices including: employee selection procedures, training, benefits, communication methods, standard operating procedures, and finally, any other practices they used such as incentive programs or profit sharing.
The owner-reported HRM practice that was best correlated with commitment was training.  The level of off-farm training offered had the greatest response followed by initial training and continued training on the farm.  It appears that providing off-farm training opportunities demonstrates to employees that the employer values them.  When continued training is offered, even on the farm, it shows the farm wants to involve its employees in continued quality growth.  The employees feel valued.  On the average, the surveyed employees received 22 hours of on-farm training and nearly 5 hours of off-farm training in the 12 months prior to the survey.  That's only one off-farm seminar per year and a couple hours per month of on-farm training, but it was enough to make a difference.

A second HRM practice that yielded positive results was feedback.  Employees need to know how they are doing.  When employers provide regular, personal feedback, the employees are not left to wonder about their performance.  Performance reviews should be viewed as growth opportunities, not feared as punitive or corrective situations.
Feedback can also lead to employees who participate more in decisions on the farm.  When feedback encourages open communications, employees are more willing to offer ideas about tasks performed.  Because they are performing the work every day, their ideas can be extremely useful.  When their ideas are heard, and implemented, their commitment to the farm increases accordingly.  The employee feels he or she is contributing actively to the farm management and success.
The key conclusions of this report are:

If there are any indicators of HRM success on a farm, the following two statements from employees in this Penn State survey probably tell it all.

"The owners make you feel important, and they make an effort to care about you.  They also help you in any way they can and value your input and opinions."

"I am treated with respect and made to feel like an important part of the farm picture.  The owners make every attempt to do what they can for me and in return I try to do the same for them."

Although compensation is always one factor, neither of those comments was about compensation.  Could you get similar responses from your employees?  I know there are some farms in Minnesota that could.  Why not strive to be one of them?

Finally, remember that family members respond to the same factors as employees.  Respect and attention to their needs will also keep them more committed and involved in the farm business.

Anyone who would like to read this full report can obtain it at:

A good dairy to work at?

Regular training opportunities for employees, both on and off the farm, can build a stronger commitment by employees to the farm. That commitment can lead to better performance and longer tenure on the farm.

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