Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Addressing the ‘people puzzle’ on dairy farms

J.E. Johnson and G.J. Lascano Published on 10 December 2013

Recent trends across the U.S. suggest that while the number of dairies has been decreasing steadily, those remaining are increasing in size. Although this presents new challenges in relation to herd management, it also means new challenges in regards to human-resource management.

In order to achieve maximum efficiency, it is critical to pay attention to how employees are recruited, selected, evaluated, trained, rewarded and retained. In other words, development of human-resource management strategy is needed.



Many who grew up with or began working with cows are now faced with spending a considerable amount of time managing people. Literature and briefs consistently cite management skills as among the most critical skills for those responsible for productive dairy farming.

Dairy owners who participated in a recent research project told us, “Traditional growth (more animals and more land) is unlikely, but growing production will almost certainly be a result of developing methods for increasing efficiency and getting more from the workforce,” and “Humans are difficult to deal with; cows are easy.”

Research from UC – Davis highlights the importance of a focus on the manager-employee relationship; managers commented that interpersonal relationships were among both the most challenging and rewarding aspects of their jobs.

What exactly is human-resource management and why should I care?
Human-resource management involves practices managers use to organize and monitor personnel and to better understand how different processes, tools and challenges impact productivity. The effectiveness of human-resource management strategy, however, is largely a result of how well it is aligned with the dairy’s mission.

Don’t have your mission statement ironed out? That’s a great place to start. By clearly articulating the values and goals of the dairy, and outlining your competitive advantage for achieving those goals, employees have a much better understanding of where the operation is headed and how they can help you get there.


Once you have your mission statement, use that as a basis for writing job descriptions to help clarify your expectations for employees (qualifications and duties) and help you identify the right person for the job. Job descriptions can then also be used to design a performance appraisal system and identify training needs.

According to research published in the Journal of Dairy Science , effective human-resource management demonstrates an investment in your workforce, which can result in a number of positive outcomes.

Some of these outcomes include reduced labor expense per hundredweight of milk, decreased somatic cell counts, lower turnover and higher employee satisfaction.

How does human-resource management address the challenges mentioned here?
Human-resource management strategy can be designed to address a number of personnel-management concerns. Let’s look at an example: Chris, your new milker.

A performance-management system based on the job description of “milker” can be implemented to clearly lay out your expectations, highlight key performance indicators and give managers a tool for tracking performance over time.

Chris knows what is expected of him, and so does your herdsman. This system, along with training, can also help managers communicate specific performance feedback in a timely manner, which can both reward positive performance as well as improve performance in other areas.


When your herdsman notices that Chris is really good with the cows as they come into the parlor, he comments on how much he appreciates Chris’s gentle approach with the animals.

However, Chris hasn’t been cleaning all the equipment properly after each use, so the herdsman also mentions this to Chris, demonstrates the proper protocol and makes a note that Chris might benefit from additional training so that he really understands why the cleaning is important.

If the feedback occurs when the behavior occurs, includes positive feedback as well, and Chris can see that the herdsman cares, he’s more likely to take the instruction to heart and not regard the feedback as targeting.

Communication and interpersonal skills can also be learned to improve the relationships between supervisors and their employees. If Chris feels like he can trust the herdsman, he’s more likely to ask questions, get help or even offer suggestions before costly mistakes are made.

Finally, recruitment and selection procedures can be implemented to identify and take advantage of those paths which are most likely to lead to quality labor, like an employee referral system. A year later, Chris has proven to be an excellent employee.

When he hears that there is a position open, he has a very clear idea of what kind of person is needed, both skills and personality. When he suggests hiring Karla, he doesn’t do it lightly.

He knows her performance will also reflect on him. These examples highlight just a few of the practices that can contribute to a strong human-resource management strategy.

Achieving productivity and work-life balance
Just like no one piece of human-resource management guarantees a strong strategy, strong human-resource management by itself doesn’t ensure farm productivity.

However, although it is not the only piece, it is an essential piece, often unique to each organization. That’s why it’s important to align human-resource management strategy with other operational strategies like animal care and finances.

Why is a productive farm so important? You may be thinking, “I know the answer to this one” … but consider this one last piece of information.

According to researchers from Minnesota, while 90 percent of owners of expanding farms reported they were very or somewhat satisfied with dairy farming operations, only about 30 percent of spouses felt that way. Luckily, there is some evidence about what does keep spouses satisfied; the more productive the farm, the happier the spouse.

By incorporating a strong human-resource management strategy into your business, you’ll increase farm productivity because you’ll be delegating the work you often do yourself to others.

This means more is accomplished in less time, and you have time to address other pressing needs, like spending more time at home with family. Therefore, increased farm productivity might increase work-life balance and make your spouse very happy because then you can be home as much as possible.

In all honesty though, achieving work-life balance is not about spending as much time at home as possible. It’s about being able to leave work to do “life” things with the confidence that those you’ve left in charge can handle the situation without you.

It means taking your child or grandchild to Little League or going on a hunting or fishing trip; it means taking your spouse out to dinner; it means taking some time to read for pleasure, or it can mean taking your family on that beach vacation you’ve been promising for ages.

It means you can take time to do these types of things while also being the farmer, owner, manager that you want to be.

Human-resource management helps you solve the “people puzzle” on your farm. It helps you identify the important pieces, develop a strategy and implement a solution that helps move you toward greater productivity. PD

J.E. Johnson has a Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology from Penn State University and currently teaches business at Cal Poly. G.J. Lascano has a Ph.D. in animal science with specialization in dairy ruminant nutrition from Penn State University and is an assistant professor of ruminant nutrition at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo.

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.


J.E. Johnson
Cal Poly – San Luis Obispo