Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

A practical guide to worker productivity

Luc Valentin and Bruce Erickson Published on 15 September 2010

Getting and keeping good help is a key attribute for any successful business, but things do not always go as smoothly as they could or should. “When we are not satisfied with the work of one of our employees, very often we can point the finger right back at us,” said Brian Vulgamore, a producer in western Kansas. “It is often a lack of training on our part, or not enough time given for the employee to complete the task.” And while there are no bulletproof guides to hire and manage employees, here are a few suggestions to put good luck on your side.

Hire the right candidate
The first task at hand is to define the position. How broadly is it going to be defined and what should the employee expect to be asked to do? Many employers in agriculture do not like to write a job description, as they are concerned about placing too many limitations. Yet it is important for both parties to know the expectations. Skills should not be taken for granted and if some are critical to perform the job, then they should be mentioned as well as any other requirements, such as having a commercial driver’s license or having transportation.

Train appropriately
Training is critical, and while the employee may have been holding a similar position in a different operation, he/she still has to learn your way of doing business – the vocabulary or priorities may not be the same as in the previous work. Investing time in training a new employee is the perfect opportunity to build a strong relationship and save time and headaches in the future. Be flexible, you may like to do things a certain way but somebody may like to do them differently. As long as it is safe, time-efficient, and does not present any other risks or issues, let the person choose the way they prefer to have it done.


It is common for farm managers to have started working by themselves and may never have had to be effective communicators. With employees, a lack of communication is not an option. Good communication makes sure that everybody is on the same page and that any unplanned event is going to be handle appropriately because the daily priorities have been defined. For Vulgamore, communication is a key component. “Giving feedback, good and bad, is essential to our employees.”



Vital learning defines four key elements to good communication:

• A clear and concise message, targeted toward the interest of the receiver. The receiver needs to understand the message without having to sort through information less relevant.

• Look for non-verbal clues. There is a lot that can be revealed just by observing non-verbal communication signs such as position, posture, tone of voice, intonation, facial expression and hand gesture.

• Listen. Communication is a two- way street. If you do not listen for the questions, concerns, or comments, there is only a one-way exchange. Probing and reflecting are part of active listening and are important tools for communicating.

• Overcome barriers to understanding, whether they be psychological, cultural or situational.

Managing can be a challenge

There is an old French saying that states that a job well-thought-out is half-way done. While it may not be completely true, the opposite sure is. If you are not well organized, you are going to waste some time, and time wasted increases with the number of employees you manage. Work on the farm is not regular; there are down times and other times when there are not enough hours in the day to get it all done.


Managing effectively will make sure that slow times are used to better prepare for rush times so that everything is as efficient as possible during those crunch time. The return on your time or your employees’ time is the highest when there is a lot to do because of weather, or other conditions imposed on the operation. Insuring that the least amount of time is wasted due to mechanical failure, incident, or ineffective organization during those times will provide the highest return and provide an incentive to invest some time in planning effectively for those periods.

Consistency helps

Your role as a manager is to be consistent in your decision-making and in the way you handle situations. It is important for an employee to know rules and consequences. The consequences need to be consistent, they cannot be different for each employee, and cannot change from day to day. It is not a good idea to be giddy one hour, then gruff the next. Decide what you are going to be and then stick with it, then people will know what to expect.

People have different needs for guidance. Some may function well just knowing the big picture – they will fill in the details and be flexible. Others may need a detailed plan and deadlines. Know your employees, learn what to use with each one of them to motivate them and get the job done. When conflicts arise, stick with the facts, avoid personal issues, and ask your helpers for their advice on what can be done – it is important for them to realize that they are also part of the solution. This is not a time for you to vent frustration. PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request by sending an email to .

—Excerpts from Purdue University Top Farmer Crop Workshop Newsletter, March 2008