Boost Your Dairy Employee Loyalty

The people who operate a dairy day-to-day are the backbone of the business’ success. Here are 7 ways to help retain them long-term.

By Amy Stuart, DVM

A dairy is nothing without the people who keep it running every day. One of the primary dividing factors between highly successful dairies and those that struggle is the satisfaction and commitment of their employees.

The Workforce Development division of the national dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) program recently conducted a survey of dairy farm labor practices. They found that the average annual turnover rate for dairy farm workers is nearly 40%. Respondents also rated “difficulty finding replacement labor” as a 4 out of 5.

So, what are keys to developing and keeping dairy employees? Here are the priorities of successful dairies that help them instill employee loyalty:

  1. Training and mentoring – One of the biggest frustrations expressed by dairy workers is that they are hired on but not fully informed of their job expectations or procedures. Then, when things go wrong, they are blamed or penalized. Improper or no training also can lead to animal suffering, which is a really poor culture to establish on a dairy. New workers need both hands-on training and written instructions -- including lots of visuals -- to do their jobs successfully and provide the best possible animal care.
  1. A structural hierarchy -- Appointing team leaders and mentors allows for better day-to-day supervision, and empowers and rewards the most capable workers who have earned your respect and appreciation. Those team leaders also provide more supervisory “touches” for day-to-day workers, and serve as important liaisons between workers and upper management. I frequently see situations in which workers think managers know about a problem, but they do not. It becomes demoralizing to employees when they perceive that problems are “blown off” and nothing changes.
  1. Safety and health – Farming is a hazardous business, and we ask our workers to perform dangerous tasks every day. Training and investment in personal safety equipment can prevent injuries and tragedies from occurring, and demonstrates personal care to workers. And don’t forget about mental health. Dairy work is both physically and mentally demanding, and all workers deserve a reasonable schedule that provides them with reliable time off. Maternity and calf care are especially sensitive areas that can be mentally and emotionally draining. Be mindful of workers’ needs for breaks, support, and words of encouragement, especially in challenging circumstances.
  1. Functional equipment – Gates that drag, tractor door handles that are broken, headlocks that don’t close properly – they are all annoyances that can add up to massive frustration if no one on the dairy cares enough to fix them. Ignoring details like this makes it more challenging for people to do their jobs, and conveys a lack of interest from management. Conversely, regularly maintaining and replacing broken equipment demonstrates caring – not only for the dairy facility, but also for the people who run it.
  1. Cultural support – You may not celebrate the same holidays as some of your workers, but if you recognize them, it shows that you value them as people and not just cogs in a machine. You can show your respect for them and their families in myriad other ways, too – birthday recognitions; special meals and celebrations; baby gifts; financially supporting their children’s schools or sports teams; etc. And build in some fun in your business culture. There are dairies that have soccer fields, basketball courts, and on-farm workout facilities to promote recreation and camaraderie.
  1. Automation – The more automated you can make your dairy operations – through activity monitors, precision feed-mixing and delivery, calf nutrition technologies, herd management software, teat scrubbers, electronic parlor management and more – the greater the likelihood that tasks will be performed consistently, and problems can be identified and dealt with swiftly. While automation may not reduce the number of employees you need, it elevates their skills sets and makes the work less physically taxing on them.
  1. Housing – Housing is expensive and in short supply in our region. Providing housing (or a housing allowance) instills near-instant loyalty because workers want and need a comfortable, safe place for their families to live. Some dairies are even investing in new construction of both short- and long-term housing as a way to attract employees. And, like farm equipment, maintaining those dwellings and providing routine improvements go a long way in showing your workers that you care about them and their families.

From a financial perspective, it is also far more beneficial to retain current employees than hire new ones, because the cost of replacing an employee can be up to 20% of their salary, according to research done by Nebraska Farm Bureau. And when the chips are down and you need your people to go the extra mile for your business, they are much more likely to do so if they feel respected, valued, and appreciated day-to-day.

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