HR specialists offer tips for retaining ag workers

HR specialists offer tips for retaining ag workers

EMPLOYEE turnover is costly, requiring employers to spend time and money finding and training new employees, which is one important reason why retaining good workers is a top priority for most agribusinesses and farm operations, according to Syngenta and agriculture human resource (HR) specialists.

"There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for employee retention," said Mary Barefoot, HR services manager at "Making sure employees are happy with their jobs is a complex mix of both tangible and intangible factors, and it's different for each employee."

Compensation, training, professional development, incentives and flexibility are a few factors an employer should consider when looking for the combination that keeps employees engaged and committed.

When a person feels underpaid, compensation can cause dissatisfaction, but that doesn't mean that more money is the entire answer to retention.

"Compensation is important as a part of retaining employees, but increases in salaries will not guarantee that employees won't leave," said Bob Milligan, senior consultant with Dairy Strategies in St. Paul, Minn.

Employers don't have to pay the most but can't pay the least, either.

"There will always be someone who beats your salary, but people have to feel like they're being treated fairly," said Kathleen Schindler, head of talent acquisition and talent management at Syngenta. "Transparency is important. Communicate that you know what's happening in your market, and show that what you're offering is competitive."

Additionally, having competent and satisfied people is important to creating a positive work environment.

"People find it fulfilling to be surrounded by others who love what they're doing and who do it well, so look at whom you're hiring into the company," Schindler said, adding that employers shouldn't overlook their own influences. The relationship with managers is a key motivator for people to stay in the job — and often is a significant factor as to why they leave.

Milligan stressed the importance of learning about leadership best practices. "You wouldn't hire a crop specialist who doesn't know a lot about crops," he said. "So, why would you think you'll be a good leader and supervisor if you know nothing about it?"

Milligan also explained the significance of hiring the right people from the beginning.

"Farmers spend a lot of time choosing what to plant, but there's much more difference in productivity across people than across varieties of seed," he said. "It doesn't mean you hire all Ph.D.s, but find people who are able to fit the requirements of a job."

Once hired, it's important to ensure that employees know their jobs, according to Milligan.

"Ninety percent of employees don't really understand what's expected of them at work. Even if they do, they don't know why," he said. "How motivated can you be to do something if you don't know why you're doing it?"

Milligan recommended providing direction to employees through feedback on a regular basis, explaining, "If it's January, do you want someone to tell you they didn't like what you did back in June?" A monthly appraisal is more helpful, Milligan suggested; an annual event is better suited to looking ahead.

In addition to employee appraisal, Barefoot stressed the importance of also getting feedback from employees.

"I recently learned about 'stay interviews' — a different approach from employee satisfaction or exit interviews," she said. These surveys target committed employees who have chosen to stay with an organization and help the company learn what it's doing right.

Employee enrichment is important and can be done by offering opportunities for development.

"At Syngenta, that's part of our purpose. We have to provide an environment where employee development is a priority and employees have opportunities available to them that meet their development needs," Schindler said.

While all of these steps take time, motivated employees can make all the difference to a thriving workplace and the operation's bottom line.


Training modules

For dairy operations in particular, maintaining and retaining a diverse workforce can be challenging. To aid producers in effectively educating, training and communicating their workforce to ensure maximum efficiency, South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension developed a set of agricultural HR management training modules targeting dairy producers.

"From defining standard operating procedures to communicating with Hispanic workers, these interactive modules are designed to expand the skill sets of producers, employees and the dairy support industries to help ensure the continued success of your dairy operation," said Tracey Erickson, SDSU extension dairy field specialist.

Erickson helped develop the web-based modules, which include short training videos with corresponding tests.

The first module focuses on working with Hispanic employees and helps dairy producers learn more about Hispanic culture, along with effective communication and management strategies.

The second module, titled "Milking Protocol Defined Via Standard Operating Procedures," teaches producers how to define a standard operating procedure and milking protocol standard procedure for their dairy operations.

"On average, dairies will employ five or six workers per 300 cows. The ability of dairy owners and managers to be successful is dependent on their ability to effectively manage employees," explained Dr. Alvaro Garcia, SDSU professor and director of the agriculture and natural resources program.

Producers can access the training modules on the SDSU extension website at


Manure storage challenges

Heavy rains can add water to manure storage, reducing the space for manure and freeboard and making it more difficult to empty pits.

Freeboard is the distance in a manure storage structure from the top of the manure or wastewater to the top of the storage structure. Freeboard is reserved for emergencies and must not be occupied by manure.

University of Minnesota Extension agricultural engineers Kevin Janni and Larry Jacobson recently explained that preventing manure overflow from an uncovered manure storage tank or earthen-lined basin is critical and stressed that wet soils can make emptying in-ground manure pits risky.

Owners and managers of animal feeding operations should first check whether and how much rainwater and surface runoff entered the manure storage, which they said is important for all storage types, even pits below barns.

"If there is a way for water to get in, it probably will," Janni and Jacobson said.

It's important to remove some of the manure slurry if a manure storage structure is filled with rainwater or surface runoff. Janni and Jacobson explained that producers can land-apply it to cropland at appropriate agronomic rates where there is little chance of contaminating the surface or ground water. Additionally, they said another option is to pump or move some of the manure slurry to a nearby storage area to buy time for a longer-term solution.

Because concrete pits are not designed to have heavy pressure from very wet soil pushing against empty pit walls, Janni and Jacobson emphasized that wet conditions are not a good time to completely empty a manure pit or lined earthen storage.

"Some manure in the pit helps counterbalance the pressure," they explained. "Empty pits may also float like a boat in water-laden soil. If pits are full, remove some of the manure, but avoid emptying more than halfway if surrounding soil is wet."

Avoid driving near the empty pit walls so the tractor and tanker weight do not add to the force of the wet soil pushing against the pit walls. Also, be sure to check around manure storage facilities for signs of erosion or settling.

All uncovered manure storage structures are designed to have some freeboard, which is space for rainwater and wind-induced waves. Freeboard also provides some extra storage space when there is a heavy rain event.

Sometimes, heavy rain uses up the freeboard space, and in this case, Janni and Jacobson recommended removing some manure to allow for additional space and to maintain the freeboard design.

"Even if you did not have a lot of rainwater or surface runoff get into your manure storage, if some did, the normal storage period will be reduced," they said.

Heavy rains can shorten the manure storage timeline, and this could be important if all of a producer's land application is done on cropland after fall harvest.

"Plan ahead if you lost some manure storage to rainwater and surface runoff," Janni and Jacobson suggested.

They stressed the need to keep track of the nutrient loading for the operation's nutrient management plan as rain-diluted manure may contain fewer nutrients, depending on whether the pit is agitated before manure removal.

"Each operation is unique, so owners are encouraged to check their manure storage facilities to see if the rain and runoff have caused a need for some manure management action."

Volume:86 Issue:28

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