7 staff management tips from a dairy farmer

Staff management remains one of the UK dairy industry’s biggest challenges and with Brexit looming, it could become even more difficult.

Philip Halhead, who runs a 290-head Holstein herd at Norbreck Farm, Cockerham, Lancashire believes the future of dairying in the UK is not so much about managing cows, but managing people.

“We will encourage and foster the growth and development of all individuals involved” is one of five points on Norbreck Farm’s mission statement.

“I think the burnout of human capital is massive in the UK. It’s one of the most untalked-about subjects and needs talking about at the highest level,” he says.

It was this subject of people management that won Mr Halhead a Tesco scholarship in 2014 that took him around a variety of American dairy businesses for 12 days – one of the many training courses in business and staff management he has enrolled on.

See also: Seven top tips for interviewing farm staff

Within a year or two of setting up his breeding company, Norbreck Genetics, Mr Halhead realised he had to rely on the staff to run the farm as the genetics business took up 90% of his time.

Norbreck Farm facts

  • 93ha owned, 12ha maize grown on contract
  • Milks 290 pedigree Holstein cows
  • Milks three times a day
  • Yields 10,400 litres at 3.96% fat and 3.21% protein
  • Milk sold to Arla, on a Tesco contract
  • Uses genomics, IVF and embryo transfer to accelerate generational change
  • Three full-time and five part-time staff

Norbreck genetics

  • Originated when Philip Halhead sold his first bull when he was at school
  • Became a limited company in 2003
  • Semex’s sole supplier of beef semen in the UK
  • Specialising in British Blue and Limousin genetics

So, how do you make sure staff management works well on a farm you’re only there 10% of the time?

While Mr Halhead is insistent there are plenty of areas for improvement, the staff retention and success of both businesses make it clear it’s a well-run ship. Here are some of the key areas that aid the smooth running at Norbreck.

1. Understand personalities

When Mr Halhead went to Florida to the Young Dairy Leaders Institute in 2005 and 2006, one of his first key learnings was about personality profiling – evaluating and understanding an individual’s personality and how it fits with their work.

“I’d say I’m quite an outgoing person; quite big picture. And I learned that, for someone who prefers a quiet office environment and focusing on the detail, I’m their worst nightmare.”

Key points

  • It is important to understand individuals’ strengths and weakness, starting with your own, and then build a balanced team with that knowledge.
  • Strong communicators help teamwork. Mr Halhead says his herd manager, who has been with him for 10 years, is great because, while he loves his cows, he also very good at thinking about other people.

2. Keep an open dialogue

This is even more important to Mr Halhead as he travels regularly and is away from the farm.

“When I am away with work and ring or email to see how things are going, I need to be sure there are no hangups about giving me an honest answer.”

There are no protocols in place for managing underperformance – it would always be treated on an individual basis – but the discipline side of the business starts with learning from mistakes and trying to improve from there.

Key point

  • Be approachable so the team can be honest and open with you and aren’t afraid to communicate issues or mistakes.

3. Have regular meetings

Fortnightly meetings take place around the farmhouse table for the full-time team – part-time staff are invited to attend if convenient, but if not, they are caught up with separately.

“I have noticed it is detrimental to the business when we have fewer meetings. So, it’s crucial I am disciplined to make time to support the team.”

Bringing in experts, such as the vet and nutritionist, and suppliers is key to the success of this and not trying to cover everything in one go. Usually just one or two subjects are focused on.

Key points

  • Have regular team meetings, with a solid agenda.
  • Don’t dominate the meeting – let the team have their say.
  • Bring in advisers to improve team understanding and relationships with those people.
  • Keep part-time staff in the loop if they are not at the meeting.

4. Give staff transition attention

This was key at Norbreck Farm last year after one member of the team left the farm to pursue a career outside agriculture and two new members joined in the autumn.

To help manage this transition, Mr Halhead changed the team meeting to cover the basics, going through the team priorities and individual roles and responsibilities.

Key points

  • Don’t underestimate the effect of staff changeover.
  • Provide new joiners with a starter pack with information on the farm’s protocols and processes – for example, on milking routine and fertility management.

5. Listen to staff ideas for the future

As part of studying at Lancaster University for a certificate in management and leadership, Mr Halhead shadowed fellow students working in other industries.

“I remember going to a children’s nursery and the lady I was with was reporting on business performance to younger staff in their late teens and early twenties. She was also translating the visions for the year ahead and encouraged them to split into groups and come up with ideas to improve the business.

“I thought it was a waste of time, but actually it was phenomenal. We had about 40 minutes of really innovative and interesting ideas.”

Key points

  • Keep the team abreast of business changes and seek their input – some of your best learnings come from listening to those who do the job. This can be done in team meetings.

6. Rota good hours and be flexible

Each team member has a set number of days of annual leave, depending on their work pattern, and with a bit of notice, everything is done to accommodate requests for time off.

Respecting priorities outside work is important, Mr Halhead says.

“We try to be flexible so that it is not a place you have to be, it’s a place where you come to do a good job.

“With a number of full-time and part-time employees, it’s a case of understanding what everyone wants to do and trying to balance that.”

With three-times-a-day milking, part-time staff are really important to ensure no one finishes at 11pm and starts again at 5am. “Long term that’s not healthy.”

Rotas at Norbreck are redone fortnightly by the team themselves around a set framework, with Mr Halhead only getting involved when there are changes in the team.

Key points

  • Flexibility is central, with rotas and time off.
  • Remember staff priorities may differ from your own and respect that.
  • Ensure hours are not too long to avoid burnout.
  • Consider duration of rotas – setting them fortnightly might work better to allow for flexibility or sometimes monthly may work better, so there is a longer-term plan. This will depend on the team on the farm.

7. Provide resources and training

“This is not a brand-new, greenfield dairy farm, but I give the team the resources they need to do their job.”

The fans installed last year are an example of what Mr Halhead means – improving ventilation in buildings allowed fertility to remain rock solid through the summer heatwave.

“I value, massively, proactive suppliers like our nutritionist and vet. I call them key partners.”

Mr Halhead encourages direct relationships between the team and advisers so staff feel able to speak to those experts directly with questions on particular areas, rather than going through him. “Staff don’t ring me now,” he says.

Staff have been given training on areas such as artificial insemination and foot-trimming. Training suggestions sometimes come from Mr Halhead and sometimes from employees.

Key points

  • Offer staff training on areas you/they think would benefit them.
  • Bringing in expert advice is part of this holistic approach to teaching and involving staff.
  • Focus on relationships between the team and farm partners.
  • Invest in infrastructure/resources to allow the team to fulfil their roles.
  • Make the environment a good place to be.

Philip Halhead answers our quick-fire questions

What qualities do you look for in employees?

I’m looking for punctuality, enthusiasm and somebody who has a pleasant demeanour and a bit of spark. Technical ability is almost irrelevant – we can help train them, help them to achieve and grow.

The other really important thing is self-discipline and self-motivation.

What qualities do you think are important in a leader or manager?

Helping to grow the team around you. Self-realisation is the first step – knowing your strengths and weakness and having the ability to stand back and allow people to do the job – and that’s really difficult.

Do your team get bonuses?

The team have previously received an annual bonus at Christmas, but I would like to change that so it is more of a reward for their work, perhaps by linking bonuses to the profit-drivers they influence, like fertility.

I’m still thinking about how that could work though – answers on a postcard please.

Do you provide a staff area?

Yes, we have a staff room with a kettle, fridge, oven, microwave, bathroom and washing machine if they don’t want to take dirty work clothes home.

What is the best piece of advice you have been given on staff management?

If the staff are good enough, don’t micromanage them. Allow flexibility and find the right team players, including proactive suppliers who will mentor the team, like the vet and nutritionist.

Apart from the training courses, what else has helped you in developing management skills?

I’m grateful that I worked off the farm before returning – that gave me some early learnings.

And I think my father going off to develop a farm shop when I returned was pivotal in me developing my early management skills, although I had no skill and certainly wasn’t a manager at that time.

Why do you think people management is so key for the industry?

Every year the number of dairy farmers falls. In the future, there will be fewer farmers managing the land. We’re all going to have bigger units, more cows and more land.

We’re all going to need to co-operate with other businesses to get the resources we need. These partnerships will need new skills, young people who understand technology and leadership and management.

We need schools and careers officers and the wider population to think of agriculture as a realistic and dynamic career option.