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How to Keep the Employees You Can’t Afford to Lose

Karen Bohnert

July 20, 2021

Roger Herrera, owner of Ahlem Farms in Hilmar, Calif., remembers back to 2009 when every Monday the farm would have an influx of people stopping by wanting a job application. Now, with labor being a top concern for dairy farms, finding people to work is becoming increasingly difficult and retaining good employees is becoming a must.

Ahlem Farms operates two 2,500-cow dairies with Herrera overseeing one of the farms that is fully staffed, with an additional 1-2 employees on staff just in case if an employee would quit. “Today we might have a month go by without one person stopping looking for work,” Herrera says. “And, five months ago, if someone stopped by looking for work, we would hire them on the spot.”

In a recent webinar, Stan Moore, the farm business management educator with Michigan State University Extension, spoke about dairy farm management with employee retention, satisfaction and recruitment in mind. Additionally, Moore shared recent research that looked at the importance of human resource management practices.

The study showed that 37% of farm employees did not receive praise in the last 15 days. “When we hand out mostly negative feedback, we are missing the opportunity to give them the positive feedback they need,” Moore states.

Additionally, Moore says employers have a great opportunity to say something positive to employees when they hand them a paycheck. “Most employees receive a paycheck every two weeks,” Moore adds. “So, there is an opportunity to increase positive feedback delivery to employees.”

When giving effective feedback, Moore says employers should be:

  • Sincere

  • Personal

  • Timely (Catch them in the act of good performance.)

  • Consistent (Recognizing all employees, not just a certain group.)

  • Specific

Research shows lack of feedback in the workplace can be interpreted by the employee as negative feedback. “Sometimes we make things up in our mind when we don’t hear positive feedback,” Moore notes.

Out west in California, Herrera states before COVID-19, his team of 27 employees would sit down quarterly and talk about what they were doing right or about what needs to be corrected. “We would conduct our safety meeting and then afterwards open it up for discussion,” Herrera says. “I would ask if anyone has suggestions and if it’s a good one, we would implement it. And if not, I would then explain why it would not work for our dairy.”

Herrera states he has an advantage in understanding the Hispanic culture and speaking fluent Spanish and would ask his employees, “What else can I do for you to make sure you’re successful on our farm?”

Since COVID-19 prevented them from gathering as a team, Herrera now visits the two facilities daily and visits with employees weekly, inquiring how is it going and what do they need.

“Constant communication is essential,” Herrera adds

Training Support

The Michigan State University study also illustrated that 48% of employees said they never received training or only received training when they started. In addition, employees said they had a 4.9 (out of 5.0) interest in learning more. “Fuel the fire of their interest,” Moore says. “Build their knowledge and thought process.”

Moore notes to develop employees, training can include a variety of things such as letting them partake in off the farm meetings for milker training, taking an A.I. breeding class and more. Sit down afterwards and talk about what they learned and how it can be applied to the farm. Also asking your help for input on a problem the dairy if facing makes them feel like they are part of the team and part of the solution. “Talk things through, explore alternatives and also consequences,” Moore says. “Let them learn the why so they understand the reasons for protocols.”

Another learning opportunity includes finding an article in Dairy Herd Management that you think employees would like to learn about and put it up on a bulletin board or share it with the group. Go over the topic and open the discussion to the group and start that conversation.

For Ahlems’ employees, training is offered through milking schools, which teaches them protocols and understanding the need of following protocols, as well as a cow movement class. “If an employee shows interest in wanting to learn more, we offer them the opportunity to do so,” he says. “Learn how to irrigate or how to take care of the hospital group. There are always opportunities to learn more on our farm.”

As dairy farms continue to face labor challenges, employee retention becomes incredibly important. With more competition available for dairy employees, dairy owners need to explore ways to retain good employees that they can’t afford to lose. Herrera also suggests having an exit interview and try to address the problem to prevent the employee from leaving. “It might not be about money,” he says. “It might be that they want to move to a different position or be reminded that they are an essential part of the team.”



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