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Does my dairy really need an HR manager?

J.E. Johnson and G.J. Lascano Published on 18 July 2014

The question of whether or not human resource (HR) management is needed is not unique to dairies; in fact, it’s not unique to any industry. It is a question which is relevant for any small business anywhere, and the answer is both yes and no.

In small businesses with 10 or fewer employees, it’s unlikely you could keep an HR person busy full-time. However, regardless of how many employees you have, incorporating some HR management strategies proactively can really pay off over time.



The trouble is: If someone doesn’t “own” the process, you decrease the likelihood your HR management strategies will be successful. You’ll create job descriptions and an interview template, you’ll update the application and create a system for accepting referrals, you may even institute a new performance management process – and then it will all look quite nice while it sits on a shelf collecting dust.

Someone has to drive the process and monitor the extent to which it is effective in impacting productivity parameters and animal and employee performance. When you find the right person, the result is a competitive advantage because now you can use the information collected to make more informed decisions related to new personnel, new protocols and new strategies to be implemented with your animals.

Who that person should be is another good question. Treat the responsibility like any other. It might be an intern, it might be a new hire, it might be an additional duty, it might be an opportunity for promotion, and it might be a good time to utilize a referral.

Advertise the job and duties just like you would any other position. Make sure your current employees know you’re looking for someone to help you out with the HR process. Ask for their input on how the “human” side of things could be handled differently, keeping in mind that most likely you will not be able to address all needs, and that no matter what you do, someone probably won’t like it.

Make sure you’re clear about your rationale for creating the position (or partial position), about what challenges you’re trying to address and what your expectations and requirements for the position will be.


There might be an employee who is interested in taking on the new role or responsibilities. If that is the case, consider his or her potential to be successful in the position and consider the possibility of helping the employee get additional education through a local community college or university.

Classes and workshops on topics like communication, teamwork, leadership, human resources management, personnel management, and labor or employment relations are often available and can help you and your employee determine whether the new role might be a good fit.

Remember that training can be utilized as a reward in and of itself without necessarily ensuring that someone will get the job. Just be clear up-front about your expectations.

Another good option is to make sure you’re in touch with your local or regional extension agents as well as with any contacts you might have at universities.

Even as the number of individuals who go to a university increases, there remains a need for individuals with hands-on experience. University students are in need of greater exposure to real-world challenges, and more and more programs are suggesting (and in some cases requiring) internships.

This might mean going through an agribusiness program, or it may mean going through a management program in a business school, or it might be a different area altogether. Whatever the case, you’ll want to be prepared for the challenges as well as the associated benefits for both you and the intern.


On your side, remember, you’re not hiring a professional. The interns will need help and they will likely make mistakes. Remember also that, as interns, they are meant to be learning, not just pushing papers or doing busy work.

You will need to find ways to let them be involved in new projects and experiences. At the same time, by exposing them to these real-world issues, you’ll have someone else on your team to think outside the box and to help you find creative ways to cut costs or increase efficiency and effectiveness.

Depending on the program, intern pay is likely negotiable, and often funding may be available for them through other means. Additionally, alternate forms of payment like room and board might also be sufficient – benefits often afforded to some or all employees on dairies.

One of the key challenges associated with utilizing interns will be finding those with both people skills and dairy (or general farm) experience. Most students who study in fields like human resource management or labor relations have very little experience with agriculture and vice versa.

In fact, personnel and business management skills are fast becoming some of the most highly sought-after skills for new graduates going into agricultural fields, and yet most programs place little or no emphasis on developing business or “soft skills” like leadership or communication.

Granting agencies like the USDA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have published reports on the topic, highlighting the importance of soft skills and their requirement that researchers looking at education in ag-related fields consider how they can improve students’ soft skills (like communication and problem solving) in order to receive funding for their projects.

Regardless of size, having someone on your dairy accountable for managing the people side of things contributes to efficiency, which leads to improved herd productivity. It’s another set of eyes to review practices and assess performance, another pair of hands to help manage the paperwork and increase organization and another set of ears to act as a liaison between you and your other employees.

This means you find out about problems sooner and have more tools at your disposal to develop feasible solutions. However, it’s unlikely developing this person is something you can do completely on your own. First, you don’t have the time for it.

Second, your background is probably not in training others to manage people (although you almost certainly have experience and years of wisdom doing it yourself). So do yourself a favor and find someone who is either trained or willing to be trained online or in the classroom to help you navigate your people puzzle.

On smaller farms, consider bringing in a HR management consultant with experience in ag production, let them get the process going, do some initial trouble-shooting and provide some mentoring for your new HR person.

How can you help ensure your investment pays off?

1. Be clear about your goals and rationale, both with your employees and potential HR candidates.

2. Be open to employee input.

3. Be careful to consider “fit” when selecting your HR person.

4. Be realistic with your new HR person about the challenges they are up against.

5. Be sure part of your new HR person’s job responsibility is to track their impact and measure changes in indicators like safety incidents, turnover and employee motivation.

6. Be your HR person’s champion. If you don’t demonstrate support for them, neither will anyone else. PD

J.E. Johnson has a Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology from Penn State University and is currently a grant coordinator at Clemson University, South Carolina. 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 Clemson University.

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

johanna e johnson

J.E. Johnson
Grants Coordinator
Clemson University