Managing Labor in Tough Times

Dr. Allen Young
USU Extension Dairy Specialist

I think everyone will agree that things are pretty tough right now in the dairy industry. Low milk prices, high feed costs and the threat of a continuing drought make it hard to get excited about the day-to-day management of a dairy. If you are discouraged, think about how this might be impacting the people who work for you. Your attitude is a barometer that is read every day by your employees and family and can work for you or against you. Bernie Erven from Ohio State University addressed this topic of managing labor in bad times at a recent conference on Employee Management for Production Agriculture. His comments are worth considering for your dairy.

Your challenge as a manager in bad times is:

An overarching umbrella that encompasses all of these challenges is FEAR � your fears and your employees� fears. They can paralyze and kill you.

So what can you do? Dr. Erven suggests the following ideas for consideration. He stresses that all ideas will not work on all dairies, so implement those that can work for you.

Be honest about the bad times when hiring new employees. An honest assessment up-front is necessary.

Be fair about workloads. It is common to reassign the work done by someone who has just left the farm to someone who is still employed at the farm as a means of saving money. However, overloading already overworked individuals will cause serious problems if you aren�t careful about equally distributing the load and having frank discussions about whether or not it can be done. If the existing employees do not get additional compensation, then all they see is that the manager still gets the work done with one fewer employee. This also applies to family labor.

Continue to reward high quality employee performance. If you can�t handle a pay raise, think of some other way to reward an employee that will be appreciated by that individual.

Honor previous commitments.

Catch people doing things right and say thank you.

Avoid nitpicking the performance of stressed and tired employees. This was emphasized to me last night while I was watching a milker at work. I started to critique his technique until I found out that this was his second full milking shift that day. He was filling in for someone who was sick. Given the situation, he was doing remarkably well and I couldn�t have done what he was doing, even if I would change my exercise habits drastically.

Listen to employees talk about what they think the problems are and what should be done about these problems. Keep and open mind and don�t be judgmental.

Provide new goals and new challenges for employees that will help the business get through the bad times. My personal feeling is that smart businesspeople use bad times, if possible, to position themselves so that when the good times come, they will be able to take full advantage of them. I have seen many farmers wait until the good times arrive before making changes to take advantage of those good times, only to find out that by the time they were in place, the good times were over. Survive, but don�t lose track of the goal down the road.

Managing in bad times is no fun. Economically, it can be almost impossible to keep going. However, remaining upbeat to yourself, family and employees can make a bad situation bearable, and might possibly create some opportunities that you did not know existed. If you would like to read the whole article, let me know and I will send you a photocopy. Good luck! ©