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High-functioning teams drive today’s top dairies

Peter Coyne Published on 31 October 2013

Many people who work with cows on a daily basis have a solid understanding of cow behavior. Cows are fairly predictable.

What about the people you work with? Is their behavior predictable? How do we influence co-workers to perform day-to-day activities in a way that continually improves such things as safety, cow health, production and profitability?

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Today, dairies of all sizes depend on teams of people who work together to accomplish the tasks necessary to make the farm profitable. As I make stops at dairies in my area, I see a wide variety of management systems in place.

A few systems have done a good job of evolving with the growth and changes in the business, but many have put cow performance and management ahead of people performance and management. Let’s face it, cows are easy and people are hard – especially for people who are cow people.

Unquestionably, the “personality” of each dairy strongly influences the management system of that farm. However, over and over, I see a few common themes among different farms that improve the long-term vitality of the business.

Hire the right people
Highly successful dairies get the right people on their teams. Managers with clear objectives for the team know what qualities they require for new hires and assignments on the team.

With clear expectations, it becomes much easier to find the right person and then communicate those expectations to that person.

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I recommend producers use a probationary period for new hires. When hiring milkers, for example, it should be very easy to use the probationary period to identify people who will make quality long-term employees and meet the expectations for the job.

When using this policy, be clear on the pay scale and length of time of the probationary period before the employee even fills out the proper paperwork.

Your team members should clearly understand your expectations and be able to give quality feedback on new hires. Identify trusted teammates to objectively assess new hires; this gives them a stake in the training and success of new members of the team.

Develop and focus on employees’ strengths
Employees who do what they enjoy will be much more productive. Far too often, I find owners or managers who focus on the weakness of an employee and not on how to get the task done.

I recently had a manager express frustration with the fact that he had two herdsmen. One new hire was very strong with cows, and very adept at finding sick cows, but seemed afraid of the computer.

The other was not as good with cows but was “spending too much time” on the computer, among other things, as he tried to find sick cows.

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In my mind, the solution was simple: Pair them together and give them some specific tasks. Turn over as much of the data-recording and list development as possible to the computer man, but make sure he still understands what the other herdsman is doing in the barns.

At the same time, let the cow guy deal with the cows, but make sure he knows how to get the most essential lists from Dairycomp.

The result: Sick cows were found and treated more quickly, and solid data was recorded so better decisions could be made in the future. Most importantly, both employees were more satisfied with their jobs, and the business was more profitable because of it.

Regular team meetings are a great way to identify employees’ strengths and develop those strengths. Assign tasks and projects based on the strengths of the people on your team and discuss those strengths in performance conversations.

Avoid focusing on employees’ weaknesses; we all have them and it does little good to be constantly reminded of where we fall short.

If all teammates understand the concept of recognizing and building on strengths, the culture of focusing on the positive rather than the negative will have far-reaching effects on the dairy.

Hold you and your staff accountable
Accountability is defined as an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions. In my mind, the key word is “obligation.”

As a manager, when you hire someone to do a job, you understand that you need to provide the tools for the task so the employee can perform his or her job as it is meant to be done.

According to authors Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, “Accountability is about assigning responsibility with realistic goals, evaluating progress and making positive course corrections at milestones, removing obstacles and then closing the loop by celebrating successes or honestly and openly evaluating misses.”

Managers of teams on dairies need to understand how important their roles are.

They must know and accept the fact that they are accountable and have an obligation to their employees and teammates to provide clear expectations, proper training and the tools necessary to do the job.

I am often asked to investigate milk quality problems on dairies. Usually, during the early part of the visit, I hear statements like “We have too much clinical mastitis,” “I think teat ends are too dirty,” and “Those guys aren’t doing their jobs.”

When I go into the parlor, I find poor lighting, towels that are rolled because they were put into a dryer that was too hot, hoses with holes in them and inflations that are twisted in the shells.

What really is the problem? What is the training protocol for dryer settings? Who is responsible for replacing burned-out lights? Do you have a protocol for daily maintenance in the parlor to find hoses and inflations that need attention?

Who is accountable to whom?
Sometimes all these things are in place and a team or individuals have dropped the ball and not done their jobs. Sometimes it is the owner or manager that has seen these problems and yet not fixed them.

Sometimes it is a combination of things, usually caused by a lack of accountability on both sides.

Owners and managers must be prepared to hold themselves to a high standard if they expect their employees to meet the high standards required on today’s dairies. Candid feedback is not something that comes easy for most people, but it is essential for managers to be effective.

The sooner employees know they will have expectations that are consistent, fair and constant, the sooner they will feel they are obligated to follow through with the relationship they have with management.

It is no longer just an ability to get cows to milk that makes a successful business. Employee safety and well-being, environmental responsibility, and responsible animal care are all part of the equation in having a successful dairy today.

Having a culture of accountability on your dairy – fueled by working in teams with top people who have the ability to provide input and who know their opinions are valued – will produce benefits beyond just profitability. PD

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Peter Coyne
Dairy Field Service Specialist
Vita Plus Corp

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