The author is a dairy and agricultural writer based in Columbus, Ohio.

The dairy farm is no different from any other business: Success hinges on a quality workforce. But we all know that the pool of qualified agricultural workers is shrinking, making it more important than ever to find — and retain — a good team of employees.

How do you become the standout farm employer of choice where top-notch employees want to work?

In an episode of “The Dairy Signal,” hosted by the Professional Dairy Producers (PDPW), Tim Schaefer told listeners there is little that can differentiate a farm and give it a long-term competitive advantage, except management.

We all have access to the same equipment, the same suppliers, and go to the same conferences, remarked Schaefer, a certified family business advisor and professional business coach with Encore Consultants. It is the way you lead and the way you work with employees that will separate you from the rest. A strong work culture and cohesive team are difficult to replicate. But for dairies that excel at it, doors open.

No longer a choice

As your dairy grows, so does your need for employees. Even the most automated systems need employees to function and scale. As the team expands, so does the necessity to delegate and do it well.

Delegation is not telling people what to do, Schaefer explained. Delegation establishes working parameters and then gets tasks and responsibilities off your plate. Do you keep your eye on them? Absolutely. But you no longer must worry about them, so your time is freed up for other responsibilities.

Delegation can be difficult and uncomfortable. It starts by investing in employees and building a team you can trust. There are a lot of good employees ready to accept the mantle of accountability; they just need to be given a chance.

Be predictable and proactive

If you want good employees to stay, you need to be predictable, even during busy seasons. If you have employee meetings, schedule them on the same days, at the same times, and for the same durations.

Be a proactive communicator to keep everyone on the same page and pulling in the same direction. Clarify mission statements, visions, core values, and what is important to you, like culture and strategy. Get them out there, write them down, and share them. This exercise also characterizes your code of conduct, what you hold yourself to, and your standards.

Share visions and strategies with good employees. When they understand where you want to go, Schaefer said they will help you get there.

Clear, and preferably written, communication provides a road map for reaching future goals. It is like the photo on the box of a puzzle, which shows the final product when all the pieces fit together. The strategy does not need to be complicated, but should be based on factors in your control.

What is the most important thing we need to be doing in the next 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, and a year from now? How are we going to do it, and who will do it?

Provide structure

We often think people want to work on our farm because of the freedom it affords, but that is what we value. Employees crave structure and want to know that they are being held accountable.

Your best employees thrive on accountability. Give them full accountability in a structured environment. Let them figure out how to do the job within parameters and then turn them loose. The worst thing you can do is micromanage a good employee.

Pride in the team

We all love to be on a winning team and remember our favorite coaches. They made us feel special and put us in a spot where we could play to our strengths.

We need to keep that team mentality on our farms, Schaefer noted. A team is not just a collection of six, 26, or 266 people, but is deliberately built, cherished, and nurtured.

The team has an objective and a plan to win. What does winning look like on the dairy farm? Because data is so prevalent, there are many opportunities to determine if the farm is winning or making progress.

Winning coaches view each person as an individual, not a body. Great coaches say, “This is where you are today, and this is where I think you can be.” They coach to strengths, putting people in positions where they can thrive. The don’t just put a person in a slot to fill it. Not every employee can be a good milker, nor will everyone be good at feeding.

Make sure the employee team knows the game plan, not just for a single game, but the entire season. Schaefer advised showing them the bigger plan and how you intend to get from A to Z.

Hire people who fit

Schaefer recommended hiring people who your employees will enjoy working with. We all want to work alongside capable, competent people who want to be there.

One of the main reasons good employees leave is because there are people on the team who don’t have the same standards or work ethic. To avoid this, look for compatibility, and don’t just randomly throw people together and trust it will work.

When you are crystal clear about culture and core values and have time, use this as your first sort during hiring, and then look for skills. If they don’t have the skills but fit the culture, you can pair them with an onboarding coach and then mentor and train them for the job. This person may be a better fit than someone who is super talented with a great résumé but doesn’t mesh with the current team.

While it is challenging to go beyond first impressions, behavioral interviewing can help sort candidates. Core values are hard to fudge. Ask candidates about past work experiences, what intrigued them, what inspired them, and what motivated them to determine if their values align with yours and the rest of the team.

Labor challenges always have and always will exist. However, they need not be your Achilles heel, summed Schaefer. If you are strategic, you can reduce labor issues so you can focus on bigger and more important things.

For our 1,000+ Producers
Welcome to this new section in Hoard’s Dairyman, tailored specifically to you. Here we will provide content focused on the unique requirements and challenges found on operations milking more than 1,000 cows.