The author is a freelance writer based in Rockford, Ill.

Abel Dairy Farms, located near Eden, Wis., grew from 1,800 to 4,200 cows and found success by developing middle managers from their current employees.

The joke — according to Steve Abel of Abel Dairy Farms — is that dairy owners are full-time firemen and part-time dairymen.

Putting out “fires” of operational crises occupied much of Abel’s time until he began the process of expanding his herd and his team, providing the opportunity for him to delegate tasks he used to juggle single-handedly.

The Abel family grew their 1,800-cow herd to 4,200 cows in under a year. Abel credits this expansion to many factors but primarily to the development of middle managers within his team. Such a significant adjustment can seem daunting, but Abel argues it’s worth it.

“It allows the CEO to be the CEO and let others take the lead on daily challenges,” he said.

But how does this change happen?

GPS Dairy Consulting’s “DairyCast” podcast hosted a conversation with Abel and GPS consultant Robb Bender about what successful expansion looks like.

“As a dairy producer, it’s easy to think about growth in terms of investments, expenses, and infrastructure,” Bender said. “What’s harder to think about is leadership development — what the team will look like pre- and post-expansion.”

It goes like this

As a client of Bender’s, Abel worked with him on a long-term plan to grow and modernize the dairy. This included updating to a rotary parlor and, most notably, developing middle managers from within the company — rather than hiring out — thereby adjusting the way Abel led his team in response to the growth of his dairy.

“More systems means more people, and more people means more management,” Abel said.

This shift is gradual, Bender added. It progresses from doing the work yourself, to managing those who are doing the work, to training those who will do the managing of those doing the work. It requires giving up quite a bit of control, but for the reward of growing a team of passionate leaders.

“It’s wonderful to see your employees empowered to bring things forward,” Bender said.

Find a good fit

Still, finding out where each employee will fit in an expansion can be difficult. It’s about matching the right job to the right person.

In his search for middle-management, Abel looked at the members of his team who he felt had unrealized potential and worked on developing their leadership skills. From there, he experimented with putting employees in roles he thought might be a good fit, and if it didn’t work out, he made changes.

Additionally, Abel conducts weekly meetings to which middle managers are invited to bring their ideas and concerns. Then, after gathering collective feedback, the team as a whole comes up with a plan of action.

“They’re the ones managing the individual workers, so they know what’s going on day-to-day,” Bender said. “It’s also important to personally be out there side-by-side with your workers to understand what they’re facing.”

His greatest win throughout all of this, Abel said, is that not one employee left the dairy within the first six months of the expansion. Despite all the change and unknowns before, during, and after the expansion, not one worker called it quits. Bender, too, said that’s huge.

Now, Abel said he’s looking for ways to return to their elite level: “We can keep getting better and moving forward.”

Embracing change

Thinking about expanding your own dairy? Bender emphasized the importance of remembering that expansion will look different for each individual farm.

“All dairies have different people, different stakeholders, different systems in place, and different things they’re managing,” he said. “Customization is really important to make a difference for each dairy.”

Change is inevitable and ongoing when it comes to daily life, let alone a massive dairy expansion; the best thing you can do is embrace it.

“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes,” Bender said. “Jump in, take risks, and lean on those around you.”

“When systems change, people need to change a little bit, too,” Abel added.

Further, keep in mind that the process of expansion begins long before the cows actually arrive. It’s about preparing yourself and your team by developing middle managers, considering where you are and where you want to be, and knowing you may not get it right the first time around.

It’s hard, Abel admitted. In the beginning, he underestimated the extent to which things would need to change. For the first several weeks, the dairy barely kept its head above water. What kept him going was the edification of contributing to the empowerment of his employees and the understanding that each new realization was an exciting step forward.

Abel credited Bender’s expertise with making a difference, too. GPS Dairy Consulting helps develop leaders, inspire change, and provide networking between farms.

“It’s a small industry,” Bender said. “Getting people together to learn from each other can be a big help.”

As for the fires? They still happen, of course. But with capable, high-performing middlemen, Abel can hang up his hose and focus on what’s ahead.