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0207 PD: Changing roles and responsibilities of farm managers

Jim Henion Published on 06 February 2007

The following article is the first in a series of articles summarizing the “Supervisory Skills for Managers” DVD collection produced by Jim Henion. The series provides helpful management hints for owners and managers working with employees on dairy operations.


There’s no question agriculture today is in the midst of unprecedented change. One of these changes is the move towards fewer, but much larger farms. As farms increase in size, they’re relying more on outside hired labor. Along with hired employees come challenges associated with getting work done through other people.

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Many farm owners and managers have commented, “Not only is employee supervision a new job, it’s an entirely different career!”

Transition from doing to leading
Maria Nye at Mountain View Dairy in Delta, Utah, works with 12 employees. Maria tells us, “Most dairy producers would classify themselves as doers. They get out and get things done. When you change into the management mode, you have to slow down what you’re doing and think in ways you didn’t have to before.”

Lamar Anthony of Americus, Georgia, adds, “You change from working with cows to working with people. Now you’ve got to get people to do those necessary steps that you once did yourself.”

Benefits of working with employees
The primary benefit of working with employees instead of doing everything yourself is you can get a whole lot more accomplished.

“As a single individual you can do ‘x.’ Once you start hiring people, you can do either ‘x + y,’ or even ‘x2’,” states John Noble of Linwood Management, LLC in Linwood, New York.

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Brian Ingram at the 800-cow Rathmourne Holsteins in Port Austin, Michigan, adds, “It’s easy to look back on the day and say, ‘It seems like I didn’t really do much today.’ But, when I look at the whole picture and see how much work everybody got done on the dairy, I see we have accomplished a great deal.”

The second benefit of working with employees is you can do a much better job than you could ever do working by yourself. Steve Oliver of Savage, Montana, tells us, “At one time I did everything myself. Now I have Hispanic employees, and we are doing a much better job than ever before. Our herd average has gone up. I used to have trouble getting our heifers bred A.I. Now we breed all of our animals A.I. – and I even have some extra time to focus on other management tasks.”

New role as trainer and coach
Maria Nye continues, “If you want there to be growth in your employees; if you want them to get a little better everyday at doing their job, you have to give them the freedom to make decisions. You have to train them to make the same kind of choices you would make, but you can’t second-guess them all the time. Just because they don’t do things the same as you would, it’s not wrong; it’s just different.”

Mercer Vu Farms, Inc. of Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, employs 13 workers plus the owners. Rod Hissong comments, “You need to give your employees the tools, the training and the technology they need to do their jobs. Then, give them a little free-thinking space. Show them the goals, explain what you expect and let them figure the in-between stuff out on their own.”

Supervision and farm business success
The number one rule of business success is this: You cannot be successful as a supervisor, unless you have successful people working for you. The number two rule follows: The primary responsibility of a supervisor is to help his or her people to be successful.

Tom Thompson of Stotz Dairy in Buckeye, Arizona, comments, “We can be successful only so long as we surround ourselves with great people, teach them how to do the job to the best of their ability, allow them enough input to change and improve the job and then empower them to do the job as if it was their dairy.”

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Oord Dairy of Sunnyside, Washington, has 6,500 milking cows with 70 employees. Jon Wheeler of Oord Dairy adds, “If our employees are to achieve all they are capable of, then it’s our job to teach and coach them so they will be successful. To do this, I can’t be insecure in my position. I’ve got to be willing to help them achieve what I’ve achieved in my tenure in this industry.”

Mark Mayo of LeGrand, California, makes a similar point. He says, “I think it’s important that you not be fearful of your employees’ success. When they’re successful, so are you!” Wheeler adds, “In doing this, you have to realize that some people are going to move on. Since we only have room for so much advancement, we have to be willing for some top people to go elsewhere to advance themselves. We can’t be afraid of that.”

Importance of attitude
Joe Stewart of Nampa, Idaho, cautions, “It’s easy to go around the place with your head down. But remember: your employees are watching. No matter how bad the price of milk, you have to go out there and convey everyday that the operation has to run.”

Hank Wagner of Oconto Falls, Wisconsin, has 10 employees and milks 550 cows. He tells us, “When you consider the success of any business, it always comes down to the position at the top. It’s not about how much pressure or how forceful the top person is in making things happen. Instead, it has to do with his or her willingness to remain at a high level.”

According to John Noble, “If you’re looking for one key to a manager’s success, it’s communication. Usually poor communication is where there’s a failure.”

Correlation to financial results
Abe Harpster of Evergreen Farms in Pennsylvania Furnace, Pennsylvania, employs 75 people. He comments, “It’s well-documented that happy, well-managed people perform much better than unhappy, poorly managed people. How well you work with people is a direct reflection of how well the farm does in production and financially.”

Rod Hissong adds, “Farm employees have everything to do with our bottom line. There’s absolutely no way that I could get anything done out here if I didn’t have good people. I can’t milk all the cows. I can’t breed all the cows or take care of all the details that happen on a dairy this size.”

“Your people managing skills,” says Steve Oliver, “are all-important. On a farm, the less turnover you have, the better your operation runs, the more efficient it will be, and the more money you will make, period!” PD

–Reprinted with permission from Horizons, May 2005

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