Late last spring, when dairy employee Jon Cairns received a job offer from another business in the community, the managers at Linn Willow Creek Dairy in Linn, Kan., were quick to respond. They knew the employee liked working for them, and that gave them the confidence they needed to meet — and even exceed — the monetary offer that Cairns had received from the other business.

Cairns decided to stay.

It was worth the extra money to keep a good employee, says dairy manager Lee Holtmeier. It would have cost more money to train a new employee, and he probably would not have brought the same unique skill sets to the table. 

Cairns started at the dairy in June 2002 as a milker, but didn’t like that job. His skills were more suited to construction work, and soon he worked his way into a full-time construction/maintenance position at the dairy. That work suited him more.     

“If you realize you have a good man, you do what you can to keep him,” Holtmeier says. And, he acknowledges, it doesn’t have to involve a pay raise. There are some things, such as providing effective feedback, that require time and energy on the manager’s part, but very little in the way of money.

Here are three inexpensive ways to reduce employee turnover:

1. Provide effective feedback

Richard Stup, human-resource specialist at Penn State University, learned quite a bit about feedback when he surveyed dairy-farm employees in Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, Ohio and Maryland early last year as part of his Ph.D. dissertation research. Responses from 201 employees clearly show:

  • Employees want to know how they’re doing.
  • A lack of feedback is de-motivating. People may come to the conclusion that “it really doesn’t matter” when they are doing a good job and no one seems to notice.
  • When negative feedback is required, it’s best to go ahead and provide it, but it needs to be done correctly. It should not end with an employee wondering what to do next. Rather, it should include steps the employee can take to improve his or her performance. 

Employees want feedback on a regular basis, Stup says. Doing it once a year -— in the form of an annual review — is not frequent enough, he adds. For feedback to be effective, it must be done often enough to help employees shape their performance. And, it should be timely so that it reinforces or discourages the attitude or behavior in question.

In addition, feedback should come from a credible source. The owner or manager needs to be in a position where he knows the situation first-hand. “A milking supervisor who never visits the night crew cannot credibly provide them with feedback,” Stup says.

At a recent employee-management conference, Stup showed a video clip of a disgruntled employee who was working at a snail’s pace in feeding the cows. The employee was upset because he thought he had been denied a raise. (One of his co-workers had crowed earlier about receiving a $50 raise.) It turns out the raises were only granted to workers who had been at the dairy for two years, and the feeder was not among them. Once he realized he had not been singled out or punished, the feeder stepped up his job performance. If the feeder had received that information earlier from a credible source — the farm’s owner or manager — the problem would have been avoided.  

2. Recognize achievement

Let employees know the specific things they did to earn the recognition, says Don Tyler, employee-management expert in Clarks Hill, Ind.  Simply saying “you’ve all been doing a good job lately” is not as specific as telling them that you have noticed how everyone is working as a team lately, and you are impressed with how clean the work areas have been kept.

Be creative and add a personal touch. The more spontaneous the recognition is, the better. Make it a little different each time, Tyler says.

  • Bring in pizza during a shift change so that everyone has a chance to get some. 
  • Have a picnic or catered meal for the employees and their families. Be sure that the owners and managers can interact with them.
  • Provide coupons for dinner, pizza, fun parks, home repair stores, oil changes, and car washes.

The owners of Jon-De Farm in Baldwin, Wis., hand out spa gift certificates to the spouses of the farm’s field or “agronomy” crew, recognizing the sacrifices the spouses may have made while the crew worked long hours during the harvest season. 

In addition to hosting events or offering certificates, don’t forget the power of simple verbal praise.

Don’t set the bar too high, says Vera Bitsch, labor-management specialist at Michigan State University. Don’t wait for an extraordinary event to praise an employee, she adds. If everything is running smoothly, and there are no problems for a period of time, that in itself is worthy of praise. 

Offer praise in a culturally appropriate way, Bitsch says. In certain peer groups, an employee may be embarrassed or even ostracized if singled out for praise in a public setting. In many situations, it is better to praise that person in private. However, “if it’s a team effort, it’s best to wait to praise the whole team,” she says.

Younger workers don’t like to be singled out for recognition unless it is clearly a singular effort, Tyler says. “They much prefer to be recognized as a group.”

3. Let employees “grow” 

Professional development goes beyond cross-training an employee to do different jobs on the farm. Usually, it involves the employee taking on added responsibility or even a supervisory role.

LaDon Linde, who runs a 750-cow dairy near Sunnyside, Wash., has an employee named “Anibal” who started as a milker, but later became a feeder, and eventually head feeder. In addition, he is in charge of all vehicle maintenance on the dairy. He has been a model employee the entire time he has been at the operation.

Linde acknowledges that he doesn’t pay top wage, but has been able to keep Anibal over the years by allowing him to grow professionally. In addition to recognizing Anibal’s abilities — quick learner, very good mechanical skills — Linde has tried to accommodate any requests that Anibal has had for time off or adjusted hours. When Anibal first came to the farm eight years ago, he didn’t know much English, but wanted to learn. So, Linde adjusted the schedule so he could attend “English as a Second Language” classes at a local community college.

Once, several years ago, Linde did lose Anibal temporarily when Anibal left for another farm. A couple of months later, Anibal was back asking for a job. Linde recalls Anibal saying, “I came back to you because you treated me like a human being.”

One other training area that is not in the “professional” category, but has been very helpful is to have the local banker come in and talk about car loans, managing bank accounts or investments, Tyler says. Or,

  • Have an insurance agent talk about car-insurance issues.
  • Bring in a real estate agent to talk about mortgages and keys to home buying.
  • Have an accountant come in at tax time and talk about new tax deductions or other tax issues, as well as how to read a credit-card statement.
  • Bring a local counselor in to talk about relationships and family issues.

Get employees “committed” to your dairy

Richard Stup, human-resource specialist at penn state university, says people will be more committed to working for your dairy when these two variables are present:

  • Satisfaction with the feedback they receive on job performance.
  • Participation in the decision-making process affecting their jobs. One of the ways to involve a good employee is to help him grow professionally and give him enough added responsibility that suddenly he is a decision-maker.

There is a direct correlation between commitment to an organization and people’s intent to stay at the organization. In short, it leads to lower labor turnover.