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How does your farm operate when you aren't there?

Chuck Schwartau

Published in Dairy Star October 19, 2007

Mistress Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And marigolds all in a row.

You're probably asking yourself, "What does a nursery rhyme have to do with how my dairy operates?" There is a connection. Mary's little garden grew and had order to it. Everything was in its place - in its row.

How your farm operates when you are away depends in part in having everything in a row. That doesn't mean everything is physically lined up in nice straight rows, but everything is in its place and every task is performed in proper order. A retired co-worker of mine liked to use the term "having your ducks in a row."

If you have ever observed a farm where things just seem to get done and "everything just clicks", it is probably because that farm 'has their ducks in a row.' That farm has its systems organized so things happen effortlessly and efficiently. That doesn't happen, however, without planning. Those farms use tools available to anyone. The difference is they have taken the time to learn and implement them.

Among the tools is delegation. An organized manager has figured out what tasks he or she must perform and which ones can be delegated to someone else. The manager trying to do it all either manages a very small operation, or fails to get some tasks done well or in a timely fashion.

Part of delegation is determining the value of tasks to the success of the farm. High value tasks should be delegated to people with the necessary skills and knowledge. Often that will be the owner/manager, but sometimes it may be a specialized employee. Give the right jobs to the right people.

A second tool is a good job description. A job description helps the person know what is expected, what training will help do the job well, and what authority they have for making decisions related to their job. A job description helps set boundaries within which a person has responsibility and authority to make decisions. With that knowledge, they can often perform without close supervision.

Standard operating procedures (SOPs) that are defined and clearly written help employees maintain consistent performance. Consistent performance, without errors, contributes toward the profitability of a dairy. Even long-term, trusted employees can drift away from proper practices and procedures. Clear SOPs should be reviewed from time to time with all employees to bring them back to the desired consistent performance.

Put SOPs together in an operating manual. An operating manual that is within easy reach of everyone working on the farm enables others to perform most jobs in an emergency. If the primary employee for a particular task is absent for any reason, another employee can look up the SOPs for which the absent person is responsible and carry out most tasks. They might not be done as quickly as the normal employee would complete them, but most jobs will be done to at least a minimum level of satisfaction.

Cross-training is a good complement to SOPs and the operating manual. A good investment in time is to have employees spend time learning at least the basics of each other's jobs. Have the employees train each other. Not only does this make one more person on the farm familiar with a job they might be called on sometime to do, but it also gives employees a sense of accomplishment when they are asked to train another person. You are showing trust in your employees to train others.

The final tool to help the farm work when you aren't there is practice. Before you are away from the farm, by choice or by necessity, give your preparation some short trial runs. Go to a conference for a day or spend time with your family on an outing and let the staff run the farm. Let the staff see that you trust them. If there are problems, most farms won't totally break down in a day and you can see how things went. If there is an emergency, have someone know how to reach you, but there probably won't be that need.

You may be pleased to see your farm operates well when you aren't there, and you should be proud of the fact it does so because you and your staff have prepared.

These tools and others are part of what the University of Minnesota Extension dairy team is teaching in Operational Excellence. For more information about these programs, contact your regional dairy extension team member to find out what offerings may be in your area, or available by distance learning in the near future.

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