More than 30 years after his first brief employment at a small dairy in Colorado, Tomas Sotelo now manages a 2,600-cow dairy and its employees in Hereford, Texas. Once an illegal resident, but now a citizen, Sotelo’s story reads much like the traditional American dream.
“My dreams are to have my own ranch. Maybe someday I will get there,” Sotelo.
Sotelo came to the U.S from Chihuahua, Mexico, with his older sister when he was 13 years old. His family owned a traditional “survival farm” in Mexico where they raised corn, worked horses and milked a few cows by hand. His sister enrolled him in school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he began learning English.
“Knowing I was going to be in the U.S., I needed to learn English for my own personal use,” says Sotelo as he speaks fluent English.
He immediately began working a job after school. Within a year of arrival, he had held three different jobs, working for a car wash, a bakery and then a window frame factory. Then one of Sotelo’s cousins called him and said they had a job for him at an organic dairy in Colorado. He went and worked as a cow pusher for about a year before leaving to work at a meat packaging plant at 15. There he met his wife, started working on his immigration papers and got married at 19.
“We got married very young,” Sotelo says.
They had three children and now have six grandchildren. He’s also a father-figure for the many employees at Little Creek Dairy, owned by Andy and Arthur Schaap.
“When they built this dairy, they asked me if I was ready to manage,” says Sotelo, who had been working as a calf feeder and maternity pen manager for several of the Schaap’s dairies in New Mexico for the previous eight years. “I’m happy with the position they’ve given me. I try to do the best I can to accomplish our dairy’s goals and work with the employees to make sure things run smoothly.”
At first glance at Sotelo’s team, an outsider would wonder if things could run smoothly. He has employees of multiple different nationalities and cultural backgrounds, including Peruvian, Colombian, Mexican and Kenyan. But Sotelo says his employee turnover is less than 6 percent per year.
“I hardly have people quit on me. I have people still here from when we first opened five years ago,” Sotelo says.
Sotelo focuses on putting employees’ concerns first. When he schedules them for their milking shifts, he makes sure each one of them gets a three-day weekend every six weeks. He also makes sure that when a new employee arrives the entire milking team has a meeting to meet him or her. Sotelo isn’t afraid to hire female employees either. He says having a female milker increases the amount of respect the other employees have in the parlor.
His milking team has specific goals for milk quality, including E. coli, somatic cell count (SCC) and standard plate count (SPC). These he reviews frequently with the team, providing feedback to the employees about what the owner thinks of their performance, and provides, if necessary, feedback or training on how to improve.
His leadership has secured his position and gained the respect of his boss, Andy Schaap.
“He has never disrespected me,” Sotelo says. “He respects my decisions and always lets me do things the way that I think is right.” EL