Advice on how to build and keep a good farm team

When times are tough, it can be hard to summon the energy to recruit staff or to invest time to maintain a strong team.

The challenge now for farmers is that they are fighting so many fires that recruitment can slip down the priority list, says AHDB knowledge exchange manager Mark Campbell.

The result is they are at the coalface doing £15/hour jobs rather than £500/hour ones.

The answer is to be brave enough to “step back a little bit from the fire, find out where the source is and see where the opportunities are”, he says.

See also: Farmers Weekly Awards 2021: Pig Farmer of the Year

He adds: “You don’t need to be the answer to all the questions – it’s about being brave enough to share the load and get feedback.

“The best bosses are those who listen to feedback.”

Izak Van Heerden, AHDB senior knowledge exchange manager, advises considering the following:

  • Would you want to work for you?
  • How can you become an employer of choice?
  • What is the culture of your business and how is that portrayed to the outside world? 
  • Can your business be flexible enough to meet individual needs while still meeting its overall goals?

Farmers Weekly asks two farmers working in the dairy sector for their tips on recruiting and retaining staff.

Joe Delves, Sussex dairy farmer

Joe Delves

Joe Delves © Joe Delves

Joe Delves was earning £10/day as a trainee shepherd in the mid-1990s when he took on some building work offering 10 times more money.

After a year, he set up his own building company and was employing 10 people by the time he was 25.

He returned to the family farm in 2005 with 140 dairy cows. There are now more than 900 cows across four units.

Farm facts

AJ & JA Delves, Heathfield, East Sussex

  • 936 Friesian cross Jersey cows across four units, one owned, three rented
  • Autumn block-calving
  • Milk supplied to Arla
  • Processing business, the Traditional Cheese Dairy, producing hard and soft cheeses from cow and sheep milk
  • Total staff of 12

Learn to hire and fire

Farmers often only recruit when they are desperate. But how attractive does your business look when you are exhausted? It just looks like a bad place to work.

And when they have the wrong people in the business, they are often too slow to get rid of them, because they worry where the next person is going to come from.

Check efficiency

Talk to successful producers to understand the efficiency of your sector. For example, we set a rule of thumb of one employee to 100 cows.

When I was building, I learned a lot about what to expect from each labour unit and how much each would earn me in a day. With people, two plus two doesn’t equal four. Put two people in a one-person parlour, and the job doesn’t get done twice as fast.

Set a working day

Working late is a mortal sin to me. If people are getting home late, I work late myself to work out what is going wrong.

Take on young staff

Often farmers want someone with 10 years’ experience, the energy of an 18-year-old and the maturity of a 60-year-old. Where do you find those people? My rule of thumb is to take them young, with no farming experience.

People ask us for jobs because we have a reputation for giving people a chance, which I think gives us an edge. When recruiting, brilliance can come from anywhere, so treat everyone the same.

Define your business culture

Our culture as a business is: we want people to enjoy themselves at work, we want them to look after our animals, and we want to make enough money for them to do those first two things.

Seek feedback

We have made many changes to our business because of feedback from staff. We have a weekly managers’ call to discuss cows, feed and people, and I see two farms one week and two the next, when opinions can be shared.

Talk to non-farmers

You can read 100 management books about people, but you cannot beat sitting down with a businessperson to discuss how they grew their business.

Living in such an affluent area, my friends are non-farmers, often running big, successful businesses. They are really good people to talk to.

Karen Halton, Cheshire dairy farmer

Karen Halton with cows

Karen Halton © Tim Scrivener

Karen Halton’s corporate background as director of a legal recruitment consultancy brings valuable skills in people management, recruitment, team building and training to the family business.

She also trained as a counsellor, which she says gave her an insight into what makes people tick.

Farm facts

Halton Farms Ltd, Astbury, Cheshire

  • 530 ProCross cows (Holstein cross Montbeliarde x Swedish Red
  • Three-times-a-day milking
  • Year-round calving
  • Half the herd is grazed
  • Raw milk vending machine
  • On-farm milk processing and doorstep delivery to 700 customers using four refrigerated vans
  • Total of 16 staff (including Karen and Tom Halton)
  • AHDB strategic dairy farm and Farmers Weekly Transition farm

Make people good

Rather than looking for “good people”, look for people and make them good. It is the investment you put into them that makes them the right people for your business.

Be willing to fire

Not everybody makes it. If somebody is not pulling their weight or they are not cut out for the job, let them go. When you do that, productivity goes up and people start pulling together.

Keeping people because you are scared you will end up with nobody can be so detrimental to your business. You can lose good people if you are not careful.

Invest in off-farm training

Take a member of staff to a management or leadership conference. If they pick up just one thing or feel special because they are going off the farm for a day, it is really good for the team.

Be flexible

It is hard to find staff across the board at the moment. Be the best you can be and then go beyond that: give staff a really nice working environment, look after them, and be more flexible on hours.

Look after your staff

Our staff all come into the family kitchen for breakfast. You can learn a lot around the kitchen table, and in the winter it’s a welcome relief to come in and get warm.

We have cream cake Fridays before milking, and a bar area behind the office for staff to have a beer and a chat. I also have a rolling appointment every week with a local sports massage practitioner for any member of staff feeling tired or suffering with niggly pains.

Things like that make a massive difference.

Raise your profile

We have quite a high profile on social media. We enter lots of competitions, host farm walks, do school tours and so on. These increase our profile and help us get more recruits.

Share your business aims

Share your dreams, goals and ambitions with your staff. Then they will come on that journey with you.

Understand people

Learn about the different personalities of your staff and change your approach to suit them. Try not to be upset if they do not give you what you want every day – we all have bad days.