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The power of the people

Harley Wagenseller for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 September 2017

People issues can be a make-or-break proposition for your dairy. How do I know this? I’ve spent more than 38 years in the dairy industry. Wow, the time has gone by fast. I still have a desire to go to the barn at 4:30 every morning, and I love it as much as I ever did.

Let’s talk about a few people management observations I’ve collected from years of experience.



First, many years ago a dairy owner asked me to spend a little time on the “dairy side” of his farm to try and come up with solutions to certain issues. This particular owner was much more involved on the “crop side” and did not know the day-to-day details of feeding, milking and breeding cows.

He had a very nice transition barn that looked brand-new because it was rarely used.

His real problem on the “dairy side” was a manager who ran the cowside workers almost like a Mafia-style boss. Yet he had almost no knowledge of dairy. Digging deeper, I found it turned out to be a pay-to-play scheme. Basically, if you want work on this farm, you paid the manager to work there.

Morale, to no one’s surprise, was low as everyone was fearful of losing their job. All I could do is recommend to this farmer that he find a good “cow person” who could come in and reorganize the dairy side of his operation – and then be ready for the repercussions that would surely take place. Management starts at the top.

Another incident I was familiar with was a small dairy that worked their employees 18 hours per day. Yes, you read that correctly – 18 hours a day. How many successful businesses have you ever read about who worked their employees that long each day?


None I have ever heard of. Don’t get me wrong; we all have on occasion had to work from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. planting or harvesting or haying – but day after day? Never.

The farm suffered as cows were not properly milked, cleaning in the parlor was below standards, and calves were not properly cared for. All this happened because the employees were too tired. They were capable but incapacitated by the long hours.

It would seem that some form of shift work would have been the answer to keep their minds sharp and bodies in better shape. Especially the farm’s calf care would have received proper attention.

Employees were saying, “Sorry, I’m too tired. I’ll fix this calf tomorrow morning.” Well, unfortunately, by tomorrow morning that calf is dead. Why? They were so busy with so many responsibilities they just didn’t have the time to make a proper diagnosis, let alone provide treatment. All of this was because ownership was entrenched in the old adage of: “Well, we’ve done it this way for 20 years.”

Well, I had to tell the dairy that, 20 years ago, most cows didn’t give 35,000 pounds of milk a year, and heifer calves weren’t worth $300 at birth. I recommended they try two nine-hour shifts, allowing workers to be more productive and motivated. Or they could have split up milking and calf-feeding chores into two separate groups. Don’t be afraid to reorganize if what you’ve always done isn’t working anymore.

My final point about employee management touches another observation I’ve seen in the dairy industry. Why are some owners afraid of their foreign-born workers? It baffles me they would let their workers do almost anything just as long as the owner doesn’t have to set foot in the parlor.


Where’s the concern for your cows, for proper milking routines, for a caring, do-the-right-thing attitude? You’re the boss whether or not you speak the same language as everyone else.

What’s the lesson to learn from all three of these different situations? An outside opinion might provide you the enlightenment you need on your dairy. Or you should eat a little humble pie when your employees suggest improvements.

Do what you say you are going to do because what you do is really what defines you as dairy owners and managers. Each day of your life should be devoted to fulfilling your responsibilities right down to the most insignificant things. You must stay involved and detailed to survive these tough times.  end mark

Harley Wagenseller