Would you turn over the keys of your brand-new Lexus to someone without first giving detailed instructions on how to drive and care for your beautiful car? Of course not. So, why do we routinely hand over the “keys” to our very expensive, prized dairy herds without teaching Spanish-speaking employees the how and the why behind all of the protocols required to deliver quality care?

While I agree, they should learn English if they are going to be here, I am not willing to have my cows suffer the consequences until employees become good enough English speakers to understand me. I am not willing to let language be a barrier. My cows deserve better, and so do yours. Following are a few of the things I have learned along the path to learning Spanish.

Laugh at your mistakes. If you can laugh when you make a mistake on the language, your employees will feel more adventurous, too, since they have seen how you respond to goofs. I once painted a shed with the help of an employee, and to make conversation, I told him I wasn’t a very good painter. At least that’s what I thought I said. I actually said “no esta un buen pintur.” He put the brush down, and five minutes later a different employee came and finished the job. We all laughed when I finally discovered that I had told him HE wasn’t a good painter — but it opened the door for improved communication.

Beware of translation software. Have a real person proof any written documents for spelling, as well as intent. We had a bonus program based on profit-sharing of additional pounds of milk shipped. I typed up the bonus program and translated it through my computer-translation program, then happily passed it out. The employees read it, nodding along. Then, they gasped and looked at me. I said, “Yes, yes, we intend to share the money with you.” But they shook their heads in disbelief. Finally, someone showed me the posted dairy rules which stated that employees who beat or mistreated the cows would be fired. He then pointed to the bonus document which said (literally translated), “for every three hits or poundings on a cow, bonus money would be paid.” (The translation program went to the first “pound” it could find and used it.) The translation should have been “libres,” not “golpes.” 

Explain the why. Employees want to do a great job for you. Things go wrong, though, when their idea of the job and yours are miles apart. Imagine how much smoother things could go if you could explain to your employees that cleaning the calf buckets to eliminate bacteria keeps the calves from getting sick. And, when calves stay healthy, it reduces the hated job of giving IV’s, boluses or electrolytes. When they know the why, employees will happily clean those pails. Learning to speak the language allows you to impart both the how and the why for every protocol on your farm.

A worthwhile investment

Learning Spanish is not a magic bullet for management. New languages are difficult, but the potential negative consequences for my cows outweighed my reluctance to learn Spanish. And hopefully it will help spur you to learn Spanish, too.

You can take a class at the local community college, hire a Spanish speaker for intensive courses locally or invest in a total-immersion course like we did. “Las vacas se sienten bien en este!” (the cows feel good about this!) My husband, Chris, and I worked with Language Link in the United States for a total-immersion course. They are inexpensive, fun and the fastest way to pick up the language. Many of these experiences are also a business deduction since they are continuing education in your business field.

Mary Kraft co-manages Badger Creek Farm in Fort Morgan, Colo., with her husband, Chris.