Labor: Develop middle managers; train the trainers

By Ron Goble

Many dairymen struggle with developing good middle managers. So, the Western Dairy Management Conference brought a couple management and training experts together to share some of their techniques and successes with dairy producers from across the nation.

Mary Kraft, owner, chief financial officer, and human resources director at Quail Ridge/Badger Creek Dairy Farms in Fort Morgan, Colo., has done everything possible to make to make Quail Ridge Dairy as efficient as possible. It only figures that she and husband/partner Chris, also studied management techniques under the tutelage of veteran mentor Tom Fuhrman to cover all the bases.

She made it clear from the beginning of her presentation that the systems they’ve put in place at Quail Ridge are not all their own ideas, but the best they were able to find during extensive “R&D trips” to good dairy operations in their region. “That not research and development,” she said, “but rather, rob and duplicate.”

Often called the “Flow Dairy” in trade publications, Quail Ridge was designed and constructed by Chris and Mary with the flow of everything in mind. She shared their journey with hundreds of dairy producers and herdsmen attending the 10th annual Western Dairy Management Conference held earlier this year in Reno, Nev.

The Kraft’s 4,000 cow dairy in Northeast Colorado opened Jan. 2007, even though construction on the facility wasn’t complete until July. The ramp-up began with extensive training at Badger Creek Farm (the home dairy, milking 1,500 head with a double 22 parallel) to set up new managers before Quail Ridge opened.

Traffic patterns for moving cows, milk trucks, feed trucks, air, commodities and people make the five 800-cow freestall barns and double-50 parallel parlor highly efficient.

Mary Kraft began by asking herself about her goals, and her dedication to accomplish them. Some of the essential questions were: Are you a cow manager or a people manager? Can you live with someone else making a serious, perhaps a financial decision? Are you willing to relinquish the actual cow handling activities and let others be responsible? Do you feel you have to win every point, or can you get excited about the successes of your people? Are you interested in other people’s growth, and how much are you willing to put into their development?

“It’s important to start with the right ingredients,” she stressed. “And it’s important to start with the very best people, before you spend a lot of time and energy developing and training this person.”

She learned early not to settle for the first warm body that walked through the door, but choosing every new employee based on the following criteria:

• Are they motivated. “If they show up in a new pickup that they are going to have to make payments on – Motivated! Is their wife expecting? Motivated!”

• Did they take care of themselves – if they don’t take care of that, what do you think they will do with your things.

• Did they show up on time for the interview, and with the proper documents already in hand?

• Did they pay attention during the hiring process, and behave respectfully? “I walk them through every single step: what day is payday; what their responsibilities are; how much I’m paying them; how do we handle accidents; what things will get them terminated. If they are sitting up and attentive and not slouched in their seat, I know they are someone I can deal with.”

• Did they really understand what you said about their role in the job, and if they didn’t, did they ask respectful questions? “Most of them will begin in entry level position in he milking barn. I don’t expect them to have a huge amount of education or a certain skill set. But I am looking for somebody who seems to be grasping the things I’m telling them.”

• Do they have an attitude – a good one or a bad one? “If you have a person with a bad attitude, stop the interview right then and be done with it. You will save yourself so much time and energy it’s not even funny.”

Kraft found that it was important to put people in the right place. “One thing Tom Fuhrman helped us do was to design the hierarchy for our dairy,:” said Kraft. “Knowing where each person belongs in the chain of command and responsibility simplified the training and oversight process. No one manages more than six people directly. More than that and the system stalls. He taught us how to set people up for success.”

The next step is to begin your employees in the shaker box program, she said. “I’m particularly looking for the person who heard the information and practically applied it. And recognize too that most of those I’m dealing with probably have about a sixth grade education, but don’t confuse the lack of formal education with a lack of intelligence. We just need to give them the skill set to succeed.”

Many of their employees have had a mentor back home. Maybe a father who made them do the whole job, and made them understand the families economic consequence when the job wasn’t done well, Kraft explained. They have become people who take charge of their own destiny. We assign a mentor to our up and coming employees too, she said.

The Krafts have weekly meetings with all their department heads, who are expected to present about their area, issues, concerns and triumphs. It helps them keep the pulse on a large operation, but is also a means of teaching responsibility, preparation, communication and problem solving, according to Kraft.


Training the trainers

Dr. Noa Roman-Muniz, assistant professor, department of animal sciences, Colorado State University, was the other panel member speaking on labor issues. Her focus: training the trainers!

She received her DVM at the University of Wisconsin, and Master’s degree in clinical sciences with an emphasis in adult education at CSU. Noa grew up on a dairy farm in Puerto Rico, so she has understands the challenges dairy employees and dairy producers encounter.

“Being best at milking cows does not necessarily make you great at teaching new milkers how to do their job,” she said.

“Good trainers are passionate about what they teach. Good trainers are good storytellers, and stories are a good way to teach and learn, because stories help put facts into context, which makes them easier to remember.

“Good teachers will motivate people and make them believe that what I’m teaching them right now, is really cool to learn, and they have the ability to learn it. Good teachers should exhibit patience, respect and fairness to all.”

Once a potential trainer has been identified, that person should be trained properly. Training seminars and conferences offered by universities and private entities are great opportunities to provide trainers-to-be with background knowledge, Ramon-Muniz explained.

“One critical aspect of properly training the trainers is to explain to them the ‘why’ behind decisions made on the dairy,” she said. “For example, if we ask them to train others about forestripping, but neglect to explain why forestripping is important to cow health, milk quality and parlor efficiency, the trainer will lose the argument if confronted with the question, ‘why should I add one more step to the milking routine, if we already do so much in the parlor?’ A trainer should always be able to answer ‘why.’”

So, why is why important?

• Greater engagement on the learning process • Greater motivation • Understand the importance of their work (accountability) • Helps with problem solving (decision making) • Critical to know your audience and decide how much detail to share or leave out.

Ramon-Muniz said something as simple as impressing the importance of washing their hands and arms will save them many days or weeks of treating a sick, non-productive cow. Understanding the “why” allows workers to grasp the magnitude of what they do as part of their job.

After Ramon-Muniz’ first presentation the day before, she said a conference attendee told her they train their employees by “show, tell and do” protocols. “Show them what to do; tell them how to do it; and then let them do it,” she said. “I’m going to use that from now on in my own training of trainers. You can always be open to new ways to teach.”

She stressed it is important to ask the student if they understand what you’ve just explained. If they say “yes,” ask them to show you. “That’s the only way you will really know if they actually got what you were trying to teach them,” she said.

One advantage of having on-farm trainers is that following a training session they could provide feedback to the employees in their area. Immediate, constructive feedback is a critical and often neglected step in the training process, she said. Timely feedback is very important, if we desire to keep workers motivated and engaged. No feedback is worse than negative feedback. It gives the impression that doing a good job is just taken for granted and not important. They may be improving in their job, but not hearing any feedback from their manager that he sees the positive change.

Follow-up meetings should be held after training sessions to talk about worker progress and performance. The management team must choose parameters ahead of time, to measure worker and area performance.

“My father told me that if he ever wanted to take a vacation and not worry about the dairy, he had to teach his managers the ‘why’ of the job. He needs to know that they would make the same decision as he would, in his absence,” she said.

“Have your students demonstrate how they would do various tasks. Sometimes have them teach each other,” she said.