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People Management – Key Considerations
Irish dairy farming has experienced considerable structural change over the past decade and is the fastest growing agri-food industry within the EU. Since 2010, there are over 300,000 extra cows being milked on Irish dairy farms. This increase in cow numbers has created a new and growing demand for labour writes Marion Beecher, Teagasc Research Officer.
Up to now on most Irish dairy farms, almost all management and labour activities are carried out by the farmer with the assistance of predominantly family labour. As farms expand however, additional non-family labour is required to undertake operational tasks. At larger scale the management responsibilities of the farmer also increase, so their role in the business must change.
Consequently, todays dairy farmers need to spend more time managing (planning, monitoring, evaluating and adjusting) their farm businesses and developing additional skills particularly in people management. Practices, such as effective work organisation and good communication may improve employee satisfaction, thereby increasing the effectiveness of the labour input and increasing the profitability of the farm business. This stands true when working with both family and non-family labour and also with others such as contractors in the farm business.
Previous research identified that there is a positive relationship between communication effectiveness and job satisfaction. This means if there is good communication between the manager and employee, the employee is more satisfied with their job leading to improved performance. Staff should know what is going on and what is expected of them, and feel that their ideas are valued and their good performance praised. Communication is essential to creating a strong working relationship and open communication is crucial for a dairy farm business to be productive. It helps set expectations and co-ordinate actions; builds trust; enables people to act on facts not assumptions; and provides feedback on performance.
Communication with employees starts with a clear, well thought out job description. A job description sets out the duties and responsibilities required of the new recruit and also infrequent tasks that the person may need to carry out from time to time. A detailed job description can help eliminate individuals who would not perform well on the job before the hiring process begins. It should be used to communicate with the employee what is expected before starting employment, so if any problem arises over work responsibilities the farmer can quickly refer to the job description.
Communication can occur formally or informally. An example of informal verbal communication that occurs daily would be going through the “to-do” list for the day and assigning people to do different jobs if there is more than one person working on the farm. Information regarding production performance (milking performance, grass covers etc), relevant work or material needed can be informally communicated using WhatsApp group messaging, diaries, books or notice boards. This can be a very effective method of ensuring that everybody working on the farm is up-to-date with critical information, e.g. date of cow treatment with antibiotics or date of fertilizer application.
A simple way of communicating to all employees when the routine jobs such as TB testing, vaccinations etc will be occurring is to use a yearly wall planner - simply a yearly calendar. This can be used as a planning tool to plan for jobs that are clearly known in advance, allowing for clarity about what needs to be done and when. Employees can also record when they are taking holidays in advance. The planner should be placed in a common area where it can be viewed, discussed and modified.
Body language is an important part of communication which can constitute 50% or more of what is communicated. Noticing the signals that people send out with their body language and being able to effectively read those cues is therefore a very useful skill. Excellent communicators are aware that their body language is equally as important as verbal communication in conveying a message to others.
Both positive and corrective feedback should be communicated to the employee. Recognition of a job well done is one of the most satisfying aspects of an employee’s work and contributes to job satisfaction. Alternatively, when things are going wrong it is important to deal with the issue as quickly as possible to avoid small problems becoming more significant. Corrective feedback aims at getting the job done to standard. The key to corrective feedback is to make sure that a lack of training or resources has not led to the problem arising. It is important to listen to why the problem arose. The farm owner/employer should check to ensure that the employee has the correct understanding of all communication to him/her, e.g. the tasks to be carried out, method of undertaking of the tasks, etc. Take extra care to communicate tasks correctly especially with non or partially English speaking staff. Speak slowly and if possible include a demonstration of how the job is to be done as part of the explanation process.
People are motivated by different things. It is important not to make assumptions about what will or will not motivate different people. In a UK study, one third of employees believed that a gesture as small as ‘thank you’ went a long way toward motivation, and 75% of the workers remembered a time they were verbally praised.
Good managers are generally effective motivators and provide regular feedback both good and bad. They create an environment where employees have a sense of purpose, pride and pleasure in their jobs.
By providing a degree of control/autonomy to the employee e.g. the employee having clear responsibilities and the opportunity to plan their own work load, and subsequent recognition of achievement can be an effective motivator. Another element that may contribute to employee motivation is when the employee is given the chance to develop and master new skills through education and/or training. Although money is not necessarily a primary motivator people do need to be fairly remunerated for their work.
Dealing with peak workloads
The seasonality of workload means that almost 50% of the annual workload on dairy farms occurs during the period of calving and breeding. Calving a high proportion of the herd in a short period does create a workload challenge. The increased workload can cause increased stress for farm families and employees. However, with the use of scanning data and fertility reports this workload is now more predictable and therefore can be planned well in advance to ensure that adequate facilities, equipment and help is available to cope with the demand.
Have the herd of cows in the appropriate body condition score, divided into groups according to calving date and keep cows closest to calving nearest the calving pens will minimise cow movement around the yard. Ensuring the farm is well-set up in terms of grazing infrastructure and having an appropriate closing cover of about 600 -700 kg DM/ ha by 1st December depending on stocking rate will allow cows to access to grass as soon as they calve. Preparation is key and all maintenance tasks should be completed well in advance of calving which will ease the workload. For example the calf shed should be cleaned, power-washed and disinfected. All the equipment required such as straw, feeders, tags, disinfectant etc. should be conveniently located to minimise walking. There are numerous labour reducing strategies that can be employed during this period such as once-a-day milking during the very busy first 3 weeks of calving, once a day calf feeding from 3 weeks of age, night time feeding of cows to minimise night time calving etc.
The structural changes on Irish dairy farms recently has resulted in more cows on farms and created a new and growing demand for labour on farms. Consequently the role of the farm owner has changed to focus more on the management aspect of the business. One of the immediate challenges facing farmers is becoming a good employer and working with short and long term hired non-family labour. To ensure the long term sustainability of Irish dairy farms, farm owners must improve and develop excellent people management skills. Crucial to becoming an excellent manager is develop excellent communication skills and learning how to manage both employees and also peak workload periods successfully with minimum stress on everyone involved in the business. By having excellent managerial and people management skills it will improve work efficiency, employer and employee satisfaction and increase the overall efficiency and profitability of the farm business.
For more information on Labour Management please consult the Teagasc Farm Labour Manual
Marion Beecher, Teagasc Research Officer
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