Ag educator encourages farms to ‘train to retain’

posted May 14, 2018 7:47 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Benjamin Wideman, Regional Editor |

  • BW Stephanie Plaster headshot 051618

KIMBERLY — Farms face plenty of challenges.

Low milk prices, delayed spring planting and trade tariffs are formidable obstacles, not to mention the disturbing sight of dozens of collapsed barn roofs in the wake of a mid-April blizzard.

However, weather and politics aren’t the only farm-related issues.

One longtime problem that continues to plague agricultural industries is difficulty finding and keeping good workers.

UW-Extension agriculture educator Stephanie Plaster recently addressed the labor topic during her “Train to Retain” presentation, which was part of a Farm Management Update conference at Liberty Hall in Outagamie County. Nearly 100 farm managers, agricultural lenders and other industry professionals attended.

Plaster, who primarily serves Ozaukee and Washington counties, said training should be viewed as an investment rather than an expense.

“I think it’s one of those things we often bypass,” she said. “When you’re building a rounded HR program on your farm or looking at increasing efficiencies, this can get overlooked. But it’s something that’s very important to any farm.

“Training and retaining good workers is something that a lot of farms have struggled with.”

Training should begin on day one, she said, enabling employees to understand expectations early and allowing them to feel comfortable and confident in their respective positions. Training also increases employees’ skill levels and attitudes, while improving safety and conditions overall for employees and animals alike.

“Animal care and handling has been a real big topic,” Plaster said. “You can avoid some of those stresses if you’re training people.”

Plaster said training doesn’t need to be overly time consuming, but there are a couple key points to keep in mind.

“You need to train with an open attitude and patience so people are comfortable asking questions,” she said. “And a lot of times we don’t reinforce training like we should. We do training and then expect people to automatically understand everything and never go back to them again. We can’t do it that way. We have to go back and follow up to see if everyone really did understand, and if they didn’t we can work on getting that fixed.”

Farm owners don’t necessarily need to be the ones providing hands-on training at all times. Plaster said that responsibility could be handled by farm managers, consultants, a UW-Extension agent, a veterinarian or even another worker — in short, anyone with the required knowledge, patience and willingness to interact with people.

Training process steps may include:

1. Explain and demonstrate task performance and the reasons for doing something.

2. Help workers perform under supervision.

3. Allow workers to perform the task alone.

4. Evaluate workers’ performance.

5. Coach employees based on evaluation.

6. Repeat as needed.

Plaster was asked by a conference attendee whether employees should be trained differently if they’re working with livestock as opposed to strictly equipment. “What’s important is doing hands-on demonstrations so you’re not just telling someone but actually also showing them what to do,” she said.

Employees often don’t start their job with the required skills, she said, so it’s important to not only teach them on a level they can fully understand but also believe in their ability and desire to learn.

Plaster encourages farms to reinforce training daily and weekly until a task is performed at an acceptable level. Training also should be repeated, perhaps quarterly, making sure to revise, update and/​or incorporate new material regularly.

Non-trained or insufficiently trained employees may adversely affect safety, milk quality, animal care and handling, equipment performance and longevity, and public perception of farms.

Plaster quoted Sarah Fogelman, a former Kansas State University agricultural economist, as saying, “I don’t worry about hiring a great employee and having him leave in three months. I worry about hiring a bad employee and having him stay for three years.”

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