Scoring a goal in employee management - Part 1

Farm employees work long hours and go home. Providing activity for their “off” time can benefit performance during their “on” time. We learned about how one farm took this concept and ran with it!

Farms are full of surprises. As Michigan State University Extension Educators, we are not only on farms to teach, we also learn a great deal from the conversations that occur during those visits. This was the case of a recent visit to a dairy farm in mid-Michigan. While discussing with an owner the steps and strategies that are in place to maintain great milk quality, we learned something unexpected, yet very exciting.

We know that employee management and training are key to maintain milk quality. Although the first step is to have good protocols in place, step two is to have employees understand and follow those protocols. In order to have employees adhere to protocols they must feel engaged with the business and have good relationships with supervisors, managers and owners.

In our discussion with the owner of this dairy, he talked about how he ensures that employees are happy in their workplace and maintains good relationships with him.  He takes time to relate with them and learn about his employees, their stories, their struggles and their interests. When they have a good relationship, he can take time to coach them about milking protocol and in turn, employees will be more receptive and compliant. Because he relates with them on a more personal level, he learned about their passion for soccer and that some of his employees were playing in an inter-farm soccer league. That spiked our interest. He referred us to the “league commissioner” who is the herdsman at a neighboring farm. We were so excited about the initiative that we wanted to learn more, so we visited with the “commissioner”.

The herdsman of a 1,600 cow dairy farm that is milking three times per day, manages 15 employees during the week and is the inter-farm soccer league “commissioner” on Sundays during the season. He joined the dairy farm in 2001 when he came from Mexico to work. He started as a milker and developed into his current position of herdsman. He was a big fan of soccer and even played professionally in Mexico. Naturally, he kept his passion and participated in multiple soccer leagues in Lansing while working at the farm. This started to take a toll on him as well as some of his colleagues from the farm who played with him due to driving time and game times that did not adjust to the fluid farm schedules. To avoid this, they started playing soccer at the farm in the small yard in front of their house.

The owner of the farm is very invested in maintaining good relationships with farm employees. After learning about this situation, the owner decided to put, his “land where his heart is” and designated a portion of a field close to the farm to develop a soccer field for his employees. They started using it and, as employees from other farms learned about it, a friendly competition between farms was started. We learned that this initiative started around 2008 with employees from the local farm but grew to 5-6 farms that participate in the league today.

Typically, these games occur as family events, where farm employees bring their families, share food, and spend time together cheering for their team. Although not all employees participate as players, the majority take part in the gathering including herdsmen and owners. He shared with us how this activity has positively influenced employee morale, communication and retention.

Before 2008, he remembers how employee turnover was a problem for this farm. He told us that it was not odd to see new milkers every 3-4 months, as some left and others joined. However, since initiatives such as this one began, he has not dealt with as much employee turnover. Most of his employees in the parlor have been working a minimum of 4 years while others have been working around 12. The coaching style of management that he practices on the field has transferred successfully to the way he manages employees; taking time to coach his team about milking protocols, mastitis and other important topics related to milk quality. He shared that employees are very receptive to their coach, so they listen and try their best. In the end, players or employees will do that for a good coach.

Not only this has benefited his farm, but other neighboring farms as well. This also brings great networking opportunities for farm employees. They can share struggles or receive support from peers that may be facing the same issues. Employees have great communication so they learn about open positions or needs in other farms that they can help with the search. He learned of employees that needed work for family members that were able to find about open positions in these events.

It was great to hear about owners and managers taking steps to improve the workplace environment with ideas like this. In another article in this series, we will talk with the owner to learn how this initiative have influenced turnover, productivity among other indicators of performance on the farm.

For additional information regarding employee management and development, please reach Martin J Mangual at carrasq1@msu.edu or Phil

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