Reducing labor turnover can save dairy producers thousands of dollars. And, turnover was exactly what Russel Strutz, of Two Rivers, Wis., was thinking about two years ago when he hired his first Spanish-speaking employee.

In order to communicate clearly with his new employee, and hopefully keep the employee happy and motivated, Strutz knew he had to bridge an obvious language and culture gap. That is why he ended up hiring Language Links, LLC.

"We help companies that have Spanish-speaking workers operate more efficiently and profitably by regularly communicating each party's needs and concerns," says Tom Wall, co-owner of Language Links in Denmark, Wis.

Just has Strutz has found the Language Links service useful, you, too might want to investigate a similar service if you have Hispanic employees.

Getting help

Some producers will balk at the idea of an additional consultant on the farm. And, the thought of turning over critical functions, like employee training, to an Hispanic consultant may not go over well, either.

Gregorio Billikopf Encina, extension agricultural labor specialist at the University of California, and an expert on Hispanic labor, agrees to a certain extent. He encourages dairy producers to do their own employee training. He believes that handing that chore over to an outsider can place an additional layer between employee and supervisor, and employees can build their loyalties more toward the outside consultant rather than the producer.

Perhaps all the farm really needs is a good language interpreter. "If you use a good interpreter, then the communication is between you and your employee," Billikopf says.

But, communication involves more than just spoken words. It involves a number of subtleties, and takes practice. Some dairy producers just aren't able to pull it off when dealing with Hispanic employees.

"Initially, I think most producers think that all we do is come in and be translating dictionaries. However, just speaking someone's language doesn't make communication effective. We try to build trust and rapport with the Hispanic workers so they will accept the messages that we are relaying on their supervisor's behalf," Wall says.

"We've also been paid by the producer to help an employee at the DMV (department of motor vehicles), plan a wedding, or translate at a doctors appointment," he adds.

The services Language Links offers include: assistance with hiring and training new employees, translating manuals, conducting monthly meetings for Hispanic employees, and acting as a liaison between Spanish speaking and non-Spanish speaking employees.

Better communications

Bob Staudinger, Reedsville, Wis., first hired a Hispanic employee five years ago. The experience didn't work out well, and Staudinger attributed it to communication problems.

"Once in a while, we could find an interpreter and we'd used a couple of intern students," he says. Still, on a day-to-day basis, it was nearly impossible to help the Spanish-speaking employees understand what to do, let alone why it was important.

Now, with the help of Language Links, "We're concentrating lately on explaining why the job is important - how it affects milk production versus just doing the work," Staudinger says. "People like their jobs better if they understand why they're doing it."

Wall adds that without an avenue for communications, some Hispanics will quit because they have no way of telling a superior what's going on. Many times, an employee just needs to let off some steam in order to feel that he is heard.

Paying off

Is the added expense of hiring a consultant to help with language issues paying off? Staudinger says he has reduced employee turnover. And, while Strutz is still working on the issue of turnover, he has found that his milk quality has improved.

"We pay a milk quality bonus," Strutz says. "Our milk quality is the best it has been in two years, and I believe Language Links has helped us explain the importance of milk quality and of sound milking procedures. The milkers now understand why they will see a difference in their paychecks."

Language Links also advises producers, like Staudinger, on ways that he can make his employees feel more comfortable in this country. As a result, Staudinger is trying to make life a little more cozy for his Hispanic workers, such as providing Mexican food during training meetings. He is considering a wall map of Mexico that the employees can stick push pins into to locate their native homes.

Language Links charges $40 per hour on a contract basis for dairies within a 50-mile radius of its base in Denmark, Wis. Routine monthly services average about $200 per month per dairy, for example.

The service pays for itself if producers are able to reduce turnover.

"The cost of turnover in the industry (dairy farming) is $500 per every $1 of hourly wage; that is, to rehire and train a milker who is paid $10 per hour would cost approximately $5,000," says John Young, of Dairy Strategies, a Madison, Wis., consulting firm.

Costs incurred include recruitment, training, inefficiencies of new labor, temporary replacement by another employee, paperwork, housing repair, disruption for co-workers, manager lost time, and potential damage to equipment and cows by the new employee while he's getting up to speed, Young adds.

Ultimately, producers must decide if outside help can pay for itself when dealing with a multi-cultural workforce. If such help can reduce turnover or contribute toward improved milk quantity and quality, then the return on investment is most likely positive.

Sevie Kenyon is owner of NetAgra Knowledge Services in Stoughton, Wis. The Web site is:

Contact information

Here are some resources for working with Hispanic employees, including communications, training and problem-solving. It is not a complete list, nor is it intended as an endorsement of the companies or individuals listed.

Language Links
Denmark, Wis.
(920) 737-6602

Ledgeview Dairy Consulting
Oakfield, Wis.
(920) 583-3888

Quality Milk Promotion Services
Ithaca, N.Y.
(607) 255-8202

American AG Employers
Geneseo, N.Y.
(716) 721-1440

Agri-Placement Services,a division of Dairylea Co-op
Syracuse, N.Y.
1-800-654-8838, ext. 447

Gregory Billikopf*
Modesto, Calif.
(209) 525-6800

*Works for the University of California Extension program, but would be willing to answer questions over the phone.