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What might best HR practices really look like on a dairy?

Johanna Johnson and Gustavo Lascano Published on 22 August 2014

During several in-depth interviews with dairy owners and managers regarding personnel management, we often heard about challenges and the difficulties associated with managing people.

However, in most cases, mixed in with those challenges were bits of human resource (HR) “gold.” The purpose of this article is to highlight a few of those best practices and provide some insight into how you might incorporate something similar on your dairy.

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In this article, we’ll be highlighting Charles Ahlem Ranch in California’s Central Valley, who described to us several useful strategies for improving their HR management. The first was investing in someone to drive the process. Although their larger size made that investment an easier sell, it was as much about seeing value in the investment as anything else.

If your dairy isn’t large enough to support a full-time HR person, try to think creatively about how you could still find someone to fill the role. Consider an intern program and create relationships with local university or college faculty within animal science, agribusiness and HR programs.

Alternatively, consider bringing in someone part-time or using a consultant to “mentor” one of your current employees who shows potential and is interested in expanding their skill set. (This could potentially be a promotion.)

Look for someone with good people skills, someone who has either already earned the respect of his or her co-workers or who demonstrates an ability and willingness to engender buy-in from others. Whoever takes the role will need to work closely with the rest of the management team.

Once the Charles Ahlem Ranch found their HR manager, Alec Brown, they focused on three areas: an employee handbook, a standardized selection process and a structured new employee orientation.

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Things are changing on dairies, and the legal landscape and regulations provide increasing opportunities for problems. But how do your employees, especially your managers, know about the current rules and regulations?

Setting aside the federal and state rules and regulations for a moment, how can you be sure your employees know your rules and expectations for the dairy? How can you be sure everyone knows what they are supposed to be recording and monitoring?

One solution is a well-thought-out handbook. When the Charles Ahlem Ranch promoted Brown, an employee handbook was first on his to-do list.

The handbook included everything from job descriptions to employee expectations (what to wear, the importance of punctuality), to processes for selection, orientation and training, to what, when and how to record important information. Employees get a copy of the handbook and are asked to sign something stating they received their copy.

It serves as a resource and tool for helping to answer questions and provides guidance so challenges can be addressed consistently. The last important key to the handbook is that it is essentially a living document. As situations and needs change, so should the book.

The selection process at Charles Ahlem Ranch begins with a standard application which inquires about relevant background and experience and asks for references. Once the applications are reviewed, those matching the necessary criteria are brought in for an initial screening interview with Brown.

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Having worked his way up on the dairy, the screening interview is an opportunity for Brown to assess applicant experience and the degree to which the applicant “is just trying to look good.”

For example, Brown explains, “Some people will write down that they have dairy experience, but when you actually sit down and talk to them and ask them to explain, they will tell you how to hand-milk a cow even though they say they have worked on a dairy down the road for five years.”

If an applicant passes the screening interview, they are called back for a second interview with the larger management team. Following the second interview, references are called, and only then is a decision made about whether to offer employment, on the condition that they pass the pre-employment physical and drug test.

Once an employee has been hired, they begin the structured orientation process. Charles Ahlem utilizes a tool they call a passport, which is essentially a document where all steps and training can be recorded or “stamped” and checked off.

The passport includes stamps for receiving insurance information and application, receiving a uniform and viewing two safety training videos – one on general safety and one for heat illness prevention. Next, the employee is introduced to their direct supervisor, the other supervisors and the individual who will be training them.

The first day concludes with a general orientation on the dairy. For the next four days, a new employee shadows a more experienced worker, receives additional training and is encouraged to ask questions.

Brown and Charles Ahlem have been particularly impressed with the impact of a specialized stockmanship training they have incorporated. “It teaches the new employees how to communicate with livestock without words; instead, they simply use body positioning and movement,” Brown says. “That has actually had a great effect on molding and changing our company culture.”

After the first week, a new employee will sit down with his or her supervisor for their first “check-in.”

According to the HR manager, the check-in is designed to provide an opportunity for them to speak “about how they are doing, how they are feeling, areas they are doing well, areas where they can improve, areas where they can take on more responsibility, areas where they feel comfortable, specific things they might want to learn, things they see the dairy doing that we could be doing differently and new ideas they may have.

The check-in is just to get them comfortable with communicating and to get them integrated with our team.” Three additional check-in meetings are held at 30, 60 and 90 days, at which point the orientation is considered complete.

Taken together, Charles Ahlem Ranch has a great start and is now ready to focus on other areas of HR. If you’re considering adding more structure into how you manage your people, incorporating some of these ideas would be a great place to begin.

You don’t need to do everything, and you don’t need to do it all at once. Think about what is realistic for you. Can you think of someone on your dairy who might be interested in stepping up to help you out?

Do you already have lists of protocols that you could incorporate into a handbook; is there someone who could help you create that document to help get everyone on the same page (perhaps when you have a college student home for the summer)?

Do you consistently check applicants’ references? Could you create a “passport” to help you track the steps a new employee goes through when they first arrive? You may not start out feeling like HR gold, but give yourself some time, and you may begin to see the flecks. PD

Note: A special thanks to Charles Ahlem Ranch for participating in the research project that allowed us to collect this information and for their willingness to let us share it in this publication.

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

johanna e johnson

J.E. Johnson
Grants Coordinator
Clemson University

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