Producer panel: Current strategies for employee and business management in a chaotic environment

Posted on July 19, 2022 in Dairy Performance
Tim Kerfeld, J Hall, and Rebecca Davis own and/or manage vastly different operations, but all are intensely focused on the long-term success of their farming businesses. They compared their management strategies during a producer panel at the Vita Plus Midwest Dairy Conference.

The dairy farm
Tim Kerfeld is a dairy farmer and custom operator in Melrose, Minnesota. He owns and operates Kerfeld Hill-View Farm along with his wife, Carrie, their son, and his family. They milk 270 cows in an eight-row cross-ventilated freestall barn with four Lely robotic milkers. As more family members return to the farm, the Kerfelds have diversified to provide custom harvesting, manure pumping, cover cropping and soil sampling services to nine other farms. The Kerfelds have two part-time employees; the rest of the work is done by members of the family.

“You keep finding things to do to keep everyone on the farm,” Kerfeld said.

The calf ranch
J Hall owns and operates Hall’s Calf Ranch in Kewaunee, Wisconsin, with his wife, Marlene. His calf-raising business began in 1996 and has grown to now include 5,000 hutches and 3,000 post-weaned calves from more than 25 dairies. Approximately 40,000 calves move through their facility each year. The farm employs 50 people. Hall remains active in the day-to-day operations of the calf ranch.

The farrow-to-finish swine farm
Rebecca Davis helps manage Barton Farms Co. in Homer, Michigan, along with several members of her family. Her grandfather started the farm in 1958 with 10 sows and one boar. Today, the farm has 4,500 sows, markets 11,000 pigs annually, and runs 4,000 acres of corn and soybeans. Davis leads animal welfare and human resources (HR) for the farm’s 45 employees and holds the four-generation family business accountable for profitability.

Practical technologies
Kerfeld has embraced technology to manage the dairy herd. In addition to the automated milking systems, the farm has robotic feed pushers and manure robots, which Kerfeld said require the most maintenance. They recently added rumination collars to dial in management even further. When exploring a new technology, Kerfeld said it needs to have a two- to three-year return on investment.

“It better pay off or we don’t want it,” he said.

Hall’s Calf Ranch utilizes relatively simple technologies to improve day-to-day operations. Employees use the Telegram app on their company-provided phones, which allows them to send a group message to the whole team to keep everyone on the same page. For employee safety and to prevent workman’s compensation claims from strains and injuries sustained while weighing calves, Hall invested in a hoist scale to make the job easy and non-labor intensive.

Davis said they work with 30 Amish contractors to finish about 700 pigs. The contractors’ barns cannot be connected to the electrical grid. However, they were able to install solar panels to provide the power needed for automated curtain management, improving animal comfort in these barns.

Managing in today’s world
To battle supply chain issues, Hall said he now carries a six-month inventory on calf medications. He invested in a thermostat and alarm on a refrigerator to safeguard the inventory. He also carries a one-year inventory of diesel fuel and diesel exhaust fluid (DEF). Hall said it was important to talk to his banker about carrying the extended inventory. Kerfeld agreed that he is keeping more vaccines and parts on hand than he ever did previously.

Davis explained that the hog markets used to operate on fairly dependable cycles, and you could manage the farm according to those cycles. That’s not the case anymore as “everything is so volatile.” Two years ago, the farm began working with a financial advisor to assist with futures and marketing and Davis said that’s been a very good decision.

Employee training and retention
New employees at Hall’s Calf Ranch spend two days working through videos on proper animal handling, HR training and safety. After that, general laborers are placed on their assigned teams to train with current staff. Hall said he would like to find ways to give these employees more extensive training. Those hired for driving or management positions participate in much more one-on-one training.

Hall said he works hard to get to know every employee so that they are more comfortable coming to him to discuss challenges and ask about opportunities to work in other areas of the business. He also posts all open positions by the time clock so employees can inquire about open opportunities.

Davis said she understands that working on a hog farm is not for everyone and she prefers potential employees recognize that early instead of starting a job they don’t like. During the interview process, Davis works hard to describe the work and takes interviewees on tours of the farm. New employees train side-by-side with the most experienced employee in that area. If it’s not going well after a week, Davis said they “go separate ways” and she tells the employee she is happy to be listed as a reference as they seek other opportunities.

Employee management is different for the Kerfelds since all full-time employees are family members. Kerfeld said the family meets in the barn every morning to go through the day’s responsibilities. Six months ago, they added a monthly family meeting to discuss bigger challenges and ideas. They post the agenda on the refrigerator so that everyone can add to it. Kerfeld said it has been important to give his kids decision-making power and “they’ve done good.” If a mistake happens, Kerfeld said it’s important to look at it as an opportunity to learn.

“I’d rather have them understand why they failed and then move on,” he said.

Davis added that, when she sees an error occur, she tries to determine whether it was really a mistake or if the employee just didn’t want to do the job. In the case of the latter, it’s time to determine whether the employee needs to move to a different spot on the farm.

At Hall’s Calf Ranch, any mistreatment of animals results in immediate termination of employment. If errors occur with equipment, on teams or within job roles, Hall has a conversation with the employee about the subpar performance to determine whether there’s opportunity for improvement.

“There are a lot of good people in the world, but, if they’re not doing the job, it’s time to move on,” he said.

The three panelists agreed that accommodating employees’ schedules and needs goes a long way in employee retention. On Kerfeld’s family farm, each family member’s daily schedule is different to manage childcare, school activities and home life. They know each other’s schedules and plan accordingly.

Davis said Barton Farms allows employees to choose their own daily start times as long as it’s after 5 a.m. and they’ve appreciated the flexibility. Barton Farms also keeps employee turnover low by giving employees opportunities to move to different roles. The farm has a “crisis crew” that is trained to work in all job roles and can fill any gaps until the right employee is hired for the position.

Hall said they retained employees two years longer when the farm began providing cell phones to each employee. The ranch’s HR manager helps him keep track of employees’ birthdays, anniversaries, and other important life events so that he can celebrate with them.

“It’s just like the old rule we always used to say,” Hall said with a smile. “You’ll keep your employees longer if you give them off the first day of deer hunting. Employees appreciate when you give them time to enjoy what’s important to them.”

Category: Animal handling
Animal health
Business and economics
Dairy Performance
Employee management
Technology and data management