No farmer will argue with the fact that harvest can make or break his crop. He'll tell you of the huge investment in crop inputs and how timing is critical for a successful harvest. I heard it said once, "Margins are too tight to blow it at harvest time."

The similarities of harvesting crops and milking cows are striking. The man who trained me to milk said, "Don't look at it as milking cows. You're harvesting a crop. We just do it twice a day instead of once per season."

The harvest of milk involves all of the same intricacies as any row crop and more. We can do everything else right, and miss just a few details at "harvest time", and blow it. The milking chore is the single most important event on the dairy farm.

Why then, have we traditionally looked at the milker's role as an entry-level position? Would a corn farmer hire the first person that walked in off the street and put them in the combine? Of course not! Would training that person be key to a good harvest? Certainly! Should good operators be rewarded for a job well done?


Better way of thinking
On many dairy farms, new hires are told, "We'll start you out milking, and see where you go from there..." as if they do well they may be "promoted" to something more important.

I think we'd be better off if all new hires learned about the business end of a shovel or barn scraper (like I did) before they were promoted to becoming a milking operator. Not to minimize the other positions, but it is common for other roles to be presented as more glamorous or important than milking. Wrong! To accomplish a successful harvest of high-quality milk, you must change the way you look at the role and the importance of the milking operator. Use these four ideas to get you started.

1. Examine your attitude.

If you, as an owner or manager, think the role of the milking operator is less important than others, most likely you present it that way. No one likes to do an unimportant job. Enthusiastic execution of the details of a successful milking routine requires someone in the chain of command to be enthusiastic about it to begin with.

2. Don't present the milker's role as an entry-level position.

No other business I know of puts its most valuable asset in the hands of its least-experienced employees. The milking operator position should be one that is earned. It should not be used as a proving ground for some other role, or as punishment when an employee makes a mistake.

3. Develop a training program that recognizes the importance of the position.

In order for milkers to meet your expectations, you must provide training. You cannot expect a job to be done right if you are unwilling to invest in a program that clearly outlines the procedures to be followed and the reasons why.

4. Change the status of the milking position.

Make the milker's job one that people want!

You can change perception of the position in many ways. Start with the milking center. Ask yourself is it a pleasant place to work that is clean and well lighted? Does the equipment function properly? Are provisions made to keep operators warm in the winter and cool in the summer? It is unfair to expect good performance without a good working environment. Are pay scales for the milking operators consistent with the importance of the job? There are more physically demanding jobs on the farm, but few require the understanding of as many complex issues as the milking job. Remember that you will never attract the best people with the promise of the worst rewards and working conditions.

In the dairy business, as in life, we get out of it what we are willing to put into it. How do you stack up? What position on your farm has the highest rate of turnover? Why is that? Use these suggestions to look at your approach to the milking operator's position. See if you can draw some conclusions that will help you improve individual and team performance, improve product quality, and reduce turnover in the most important position on the farm.

Let's not blow it at harvest time. I promise you that all of your efforts will show up in the bottom line.

David P. Sumrall is president and chief operating officer of Aurora Dairy Group, High Springs, Fla.