When family members work together in a multi-generation dairy farm, some families are surrounded by harmony while other families seem to struggle from trying to resolve one conflict after another. Why is this? There are a number of reasons, but here are a few points to consider.

Boss backfires

A common pitfall in any family workforce is the question of decision-making and the management of the farm business. Who has the final say in business decisions? Who is really the boss of the operation?

Working relationships between family members quickly fail when individual family members discover that their input does not count or their ideas are never listened to by others. 

This can happen in a multi-generation family business where Dad always wears the “boss” hat. Adult children who work in the business realize that they are just hired help. With no chance to provide input and never being involved in this decision-making process, they soon lose motivation to work hard and lack the initiative to succeed. 

The threat of change    

Another factor adding to potential conflict is the concept of implementing new ideas for change in the dairy. Some individuals react to change as a threat to their security and/or authority. A common reaction is “you are trying to take over” or “you are trying to show me what to do.” What is most frustrating to family members in this situation is that their new ideas would work. All this leads to an ineffective work force and bickering and distrust between individuals.

Lack of goals

Many farms simply fail to identify and implement business goals for their dairy business, as well as personal goals for the family. Without these goals, there are no priorities or direction for these family members (as well as employees). This only fosters potential disagreements, which lead to eventual conflicts between family members and employees.

Build a “team-effort” approach

Remember that any successful family dairy operation requires a team-effort approach by each individual family member and employee.

Each family member must have the same goal and desire to make their dairy farm work as a family unit. This certainly requires a little give-and-take by everyone. The willingness to openly discuss individual feelings and expectations is critical to the overall success of any family unit. There must be underlying commitment to get along and work together as a family. Mutual respect for each family member, as well as the willingness to listen and understand the feelings of others, is needed.

This approach requires that every family member feel important, as well as part of the family dairy. No matter how large or how small the actual contribution by each family member to the dairy itself, each person needs to feel important and included within the family dairy unit. Each family member must be given the opportunity for a degree of responsibility in the business and a chance to gain recognition for his or her efforts which contribute to the overall success of the operation.

Family loyalty and pride

Working together to achieve the same goals provides a family with the inner strength to face the stress and daily pressures of the dairy operation itself. Strong family relationships are characterized by a true sense of loyalty to their dairy as well as to each other. Never underestimate the importance and positive impact of having personal pride for a family dairy farm. 

Strong families are proud families. Remembering that the family itself is a higher priority than the dairy farm is a value that each family member needs to understand and adhere to in their actions. Striving toward building family harmony (while avoiding conflict) is one of the real secrets for success in a multi-generation dairy operation.

Ron Hanson is a Neal E. Harlan professor of agribusiness at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.