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Banner Ridge Farms: In the business of family

Maddy Quast for Progressive Dairyman Published on 10 October 2018
Banner Ridge Farms' employees and families

In a world of ever-expanding dairy operations and competitive milk markets, it is easy for farms and dairies to hyper-focus on the numbers. But Banner Ridge Farms in Platteville, Wisconsin, is taking a different approach: focusing on employees who can make their operation work smarter from the inside out.

John and LuAnn Shea began Banner Ridge Farms in the 1970s. In 2003, their son David Shea began expanding the 49-cow barn with the intent to provide work to sustain multiple families. Two years later, they built a freestall barn large enough to expand their herd to 200 cows. In 2007, Katie and TJ Roth joined the team to help Banner Ridge grow further.

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Today, the Roths and Sheas have partnered together to continue the expansion efforts. In recent years, their operation has grown to include 260 cows and counting. But the most significant element of their operation is the retention of employees. In fact, the same milking crew has been at Banner Ridge Farms for the past eight years.

The shift in philosophy eight years ago was a deliberate one. Though many farms and dairies are constantly cycling through workers, TJ Roth knew their operation must be different.

“As we were growing our herd, we passed a milestone as a farm,” Roth says. “We were no longer able to do all the work with family and owners if our milking help were to all quit. From that point forward, we knew we had to treat our employees like family and make sure they were happy and comfortable.”

That outlook has certainly paid off over the past eight years. Both the Roth and Shea families agree that they have formed a tight bond with their crew.

“The atmosphere is that of a large family,” Roth says. “Our motto on the farm is ‘Faith, family and farm.’ Everyone does their part. Everyone is willing to take on responsibility if someone is unable to fill their role; this makes a world of difference.”

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Being a part of the Banner Ridge crew means feeling at home at work. They make a point to celebrate birthdays, keep snacks in the break room and pay a competitive wage. They let their employees know when they win milk quality awards and thank them for their hard work. They listen when the crew asks for something for the parlor.

Though many are surprised at the consistency of the names on the payroll, Katie Roth says it isn’t a secret as to how they keep their employees so long. In fact, she has just three main rules she lives by to maintain employee-employer relations.

“First, be present in their lives off and on the farm,” she says. “Ask them about their families and extracurricular activities. If you get invited to a birthday party, baptism or dinner, make plans to attend. Invite them to your functions as well.

“Second, say please and thank you every day. Compliment them for a job well done. Whenever an employee notifies me of a cow giving low milk, I take the time to thank them and show my appreciation.

“Third, never ask someone to do a job you would never do. Lead by example. Work as a team. Treat them with respect. See them as your equals and ask for input. Our employees may not be blood related, but we consider them family and friends.”

Jill Wiederholt, calf and human resources manager at Banner Ridge Farms, says they have been blessed with naturally good workers. “They are very patient with us. They work very hard. We try to let them know they are appreciated and we try very hard to say ‘yes’ when they have requests,” she says.

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But a healthy, family-like environment isn’t the only benefit to keeping the same employees year over year; production also begins to run smoother and more efficiently.

“A big benefit is that the hired services we utilize such as the breeder and nutritionist know that the information they are getting from the employees is reliable,” TJ Roth says. “I definitely think that if you take care of your employees, they will take care of you. We’ve had countless nights of covering bunkers at 11 p.m. or midnight, and without asking, as soon as they are done milking, they are there helping us throw tires.”

Roth says good employee relations can go a long way in increasing production productivity. “The best employees show up motivated. They genuinely want to be there and enjoy what they do. That creates the best quality. Have the employee in the best suited area for them to make the workplace comfortable and enjoyable,” he says.

All of this is only possible with a consistent lineup. John Shea, who now helps manage the business side of Banner Ridge Farms, attributes most of their success to keeping the same crew year after year. He’s found that they can spend the time they would have spent on training new hires to fine-tune their operation. “Having the same employees has benefited us more than we can imagine. With consistency, everyone knows how to get things done and where to go if there is a problem,” he says.

But at the end of the day, it all breaks down to the attitude of putting employees first, business second – which, in turn, naturally optimizes production and grows the business. Banner Ridge Farms’ philosophy is not unique, but they are an excellent example of what can happen with a careful consideration of employees.

TJ Roth sums it up best. “I’ve found that employees do not want to work for you. They want to work with you and want to take pride in their job,” he says. “If they see you doing your best, they pick up on that and do the same.”  end mark

Maddy Quast is a 2018 Progressive Dairyman editorial intern.

PHOTO: Banner Ridge Farms’ employees and their families. Photo provided by Katie Roth, courtesy of Banner Ridge Farms.

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