Developing a winning labor force on your farm

Every farm labor manager would love to have a highly effective labor force working for them. It starts with hiring the right people, but it doesn’t stop there.

There are several factors that lead to developing a highly effective labor force on your farm. Some of these factors include: quality of employees, clarity of job responsibilities, a culture of discipline on the farm, employee job satisfaction and the manager’s ability to manage change.

Getting the right people first
In the book Good to Great, by Jim Collins, getting the right people first is emphasized as being critical to a business’s success. Employees can learn most job skills on the farm, but it is much harder, if not impossible, to teach things like character, work ethic, dedication to fulfilling commitments, and values. Before you can make substantial improvements in, or expand your farming operation, you need to have the right employees. Some principles to keep in mind are:

  • “When in doubt, don’t hire... keep looking”
  • “When you know you need to make a people change, act” It may be to a different position on the farm or it may mean they leave the farm.
  • “Put your best people on your biggest opportunities, not your biggest problems.”

Developing a context for your employees work
Job descriptions, Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s), and regular employee evaluation are all tools to help you communicate what you expect your workers to do and how they will know that they are being successful. Caution should be exercised in putting job descriptions above regular communication with employees. This doesn’t mean that we can be too narrow, but we need to be narrower than the whole farm for at least the main part of their job that they will be evaluated on. This also creates accountability in the workforce. Giving employees, whether family or non-family, an area of responsibility is a great way to help them grow.

Developing a culture of discipline
Developing a culture of discipline is another key principle in the book Good to Great. In labor management this means: 
1. Building a culture around the idea of freedom and responsibility.
2. Filling that culture with self-disciplined people who are willing to go to extreme lengths to fulfill their responsibilities. Great employees doing a great job in their area of responsibility will expect their co-workers to do no less.
3. Staying consistent in your objectives and goals as the manager.
4. Allow your great employees to express their creativity and great ideas in achieving the farm’s goals. In the end your goal should be to manage the system, not the people.

Value your employees like you mean it!
Pay and incentives are important, but once you have established a reasonable compensation package you need to move on to other ways to value your employees. This means that you have to get to know your employees well enough to know what they value and how to best recognize them for their successes. When people are treated with respect, when you seek their input, and thank them for their initiative and appreciate them for a job well done they will respond to it.

As the manager, manage change
In the book Good to Great, companies that went from good to great did so by being true to their mission and their core business. They made changes in their businesses, including labor, but did so in a methodical, consistent manner. Some of the companies they looked at that did not succeed had what they called “an almost chronic addiction to layoffs and restructurings.” Change is constant, but you as the manager need to insure a work environment that doesn’t feel out of control. As you make changes in your labor force or how you manage labor, make sure that you do so in a way that is consistent and methodical. You won’t be able to change everything at once. Be as transparent as possible with your employees on why you are making changes and the purpose of the changes. Ask for their input into the process as well. Remember you are the manager on the farm and the person most able to “manage” change.

These are just a few of the factors that can help you become a better labor manager on your farm, and move your dairy from a Good Dairy to a Great Dairy. If you have suggestions on areas of labor management that MSU Extension can assist you with, please contact us at

Learn more about Developing a Winning Labor Force in this Dairy Moosings podcast.

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