Do’s and Don’ts for Dairy Worker Retention

It’s no secret that virtually every industry in the U.S. is facing an unprecedented worker shortage these days.

By Chris Malherbe, DVM

It’s no secret that virtually every industry in the U.S. is facing an unprecedented worker shortage these days.

I would dare to say that the dairy industry was ahead of the curve in a not-so-positive way: we’ve been struggling to find and retain quality workers even before the seismic shifts in labor availability occurred in the last few years.

And yet, it’s not impossible to build and retain a well-trained, loyal, hard-working crew on a dairy. I am privileged to work with many dairies that excel in employee training and relations, and it reflects hugely on their overall operational success.

Some of the critical “do’s” and “don’ts” I have learned from them include:


  • Pay a fair wage – Money certainly isn’t everything when it comes to retaining good people. But you do have to pay competitively. This can be challenging when even fast-food jobs currently pay more than the typical wage we were paying dairy workers just a few years ago. Wages do have to keep up, or we will lose workers to those comparatively easier jobs.
  • Lay out expectations – Training takes time and resources, but is the single most critical factor in achieving the type of workforce you want, and keeping it. When workers are clearly shown how to do a job; understand why they are asked to do it that way; and know the routine on the dairy, they tend to be much more satisfied in their jobs and likely to stay long-term.
  • Create a sense of ownership – Your workers don’t own your business, but you want them to care about it as if they do. Employee pride can be built by sharing goals like SCC counts, pregnancy rates, herd milk production, and herd health data. Sometimes financial incentives also can be tied to these metrics, but simply sharing them and providing an ongoing barometer of “how we’re doing” can support satisfaction and loyalty.
  • Recognize human elements – One of my most successful clients has a relatively old facility but an incredibly productive herd and experienced workforce. The owner is always present at trainings and is working with and talking to the employees every day. The mutual respect between owner and workers is evident. This manager recognizes that every employee is a human being with a family and personal interests. Meals, events, celebrations, branded clothing, humorous awards, and even organized sports teams all can help foster a sense of camaraderie and belonging among employees.
  • Provide housing – Available housing currently is very tight in our region, so offering a comfortable home for employees and their families as a part of their compensation package can create a distinct advantage in attracting and retaining workers.
  • Protect your reputation – Many employees have worked for more than one dairy, and have their own “community” of relationships with fellow dairy workers. They know and speak openly about the dairies that respect their people and treat them well, and those that do not. Do your best to be the type of business that is spoken of highly in the greater dairy community.


  • Throw employees to the wolves – The biggest mistake I see on dairies is hiring a new employee and simply dropping them into a job, assuming they know what to do. Then, the situation is exacerbated when they subsequently are criticized, without ever fully understanding what the expectations were in the first place.
  • Rely on “hand-me-down” training – When one employee shows another how to do a job, and then that person shows the next, “procedural drift” takes place, and it can turn into a bad game of “telephone.” Be sure each new employee receives dedicated instruction from a supervisor, and conduct ongoing trainings to revisit or enhance procedures.
  • Discount employee perspectives – The people working with your animals day-in and day-out see things and have ideas that can add value to your business. So, take their input seriously. Even if you don’t implement every idea, conveying respect for their opinions can help employees feel appreciated and instill loyalty.
  • Pigeonhole workers – Some of the best dairy managers I have seen started out as milkers and moved up through the ranks. View every new hire as a potential, future manager. And when you’re hiring someone to fill a mid- or higher-level position, always look within your own workforce first.
  • Assume automation can replace human labor – Adopting new technology may reduce some labor needs slightly, but dairies never are going to run successfully without people. If anything, the adoption of most on-farm automation calls for higher-skilled workers to manage it.

The Dairy Authority offers on-farm training on a wide range of dairy management areas, including milker training, calving schools, calf management, and hoof care. We can provide bi-lingual services and also are happy to assist with one-on-one and small-team instruction.

Every dairy’s success relies on the consistent implementation of the herd health, nutrition, and animal care protocols that are carefully prescribed. It takes good, loyal people to do that, and their value cannot be underestimated.

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