Dairy Excel: Remember competitive pay, flexibility when recruiting student employees

High school students represent a potential source of good labor on your dairy farm and many have an interest in working with animals and being outdoors. We all know that managing labor can be difficult, but one farm featured at the 2001 Tri-State Dairy Management Conference in Fort Wayne, Ind., has found student employees to be a tremendous asset. What’s the secret to their success? Let’s take a look.

Background. The Obert family dairy and crop farm is located in Fort Branch, Ind., not far from Evansville, in the southern part of the state. The farm is owned and managed as an s-corporation by Winfrid and Marian Obert, along with sons Steve and Tom, and Steve’s wife Kelly. The Oberts farm a total of 800 acres, milk 130 cows, have 120 replacements and raise about 40 dairy steers each year.

This progressively managed herd has a DHIA rolling herd average of 22,500 pounds of milk, 836 pounds of fat and 718 pounds of protein. In addition to family, part-time employees – usually high school students – handle evening milkings and Sunday morning milking.

Currently, two employees switch off milking responsibilities and a third employee feeds calves in the evening. In summer, an additional employee is occasionally hired to help with planting, baling hay and harvesting.

Recruitment. Kelly Obert has assumed much of the responsibility for recruiting and managing the part-time employees. Kelly’s past experience of not having been raised on a farm and in working at fast-food restaurants has provided insight into recruiting non-farm youth. Kelly has also found her experience as a schoolteacher helpful.

For Kelly, recruiting has not been a great problem. She looks for kids who enjoy being outdoors and has made contacts through school, church and sports activities. Her best recruiters are present and former employees.

Steve and Kelly have found that it is best to have only one high schooler milking at a time, because it is much easier for them to remain focused. Kelly says it is important to remember that a social life, not cows, is the most important aspect in the life of teens. Managers need to keep this in mind and be flexible with scheduling, especially on weekends.

Top 10. From her years of experience in recruiting employees, Kelly has developed a top 10 list of recommendations for managers to follow.

1. Break in new employees gradually. At the Obert farm, potential employees are given a chance to milk a few times before making a commitment. This also allows Steve and Kelly to decide if the person is right for the job.

During the break-in period it is important to spend time with orientation, discussing the mission and goals of the farm and the importance of standard operating procedures.

2. Communicate. Youth do not think as maturely as adults and to expect more is unrealistic. Therefore, it is vital to list tasks very clearly and not to expect workers to develop these lists on their own.

3. Maintain a simple, easily located work schedule. The Oberts are flexible with scheduling, but employees are responsible for finding a replacement when they want time off after the schedule is completed.

4. Develop a simple checklist of tasks. The Oberts have developed and posted standard operating procedures for milking, feeding, etc. in visible areas for all employees to follow.

5. Keep in mind that youth are not mature adults. Students don’t have the communication skills and managers need to take time to ask questions.

6. Be firm about what you expect. Students need to understand the importance of their job and how their carelessness can negatively impact the farm. They also need to understand that their job is at risk if they do not perform.

7. Be flexible. Keep in mind students are busy. When developing work schedules, ask students about upcoming school functions, tests, church and family activities.

8. Talk to employees’ parents regularly. Ask parents if their child is enjoying the job. The Oberts regularly invite the parents of their student employees to visit the farm.

9. Don’t skimp on pay. Find out what your competition (fast food restaurants, grocery stores, etc.) is paying and match or exceed it. The Oberts also pay more on weekends and provide birthday and education bonuses.

10. Build rapport with kids, and let them know you are always there to help them. Kelly says to simply show respect for students and they will respect you.

No secrets. The Oberts say they really don’t have any secrets to recruiting and managing high school employees. Rather, over the last 10 years they have realized that kids want to work. They have also developed a good reputation in their community and stick to their top ten list.

Managing high school students is not for everyone. However, these students can be terrific employees on your farm and if you follow Obert’s list, you will improve your odds of success.

(Send comments or questions in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)

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