Farm business expansion demands leadership skills

People management will become just as important as cow management for many businesses and, for those who want to expand, it will be critical. John Giles, divisional director of Promar International, explains why.

A seemingly successful dairy farmer told me recently: “I can manage the cows all right, it’s just the people I find more difficult.”

Our research of almost 300 of our customers with an average herd size of just under 200 cows found that 60% of dairy farmers were expecting to increase cow numbers.

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It is clear, though, that while many farmers have developed a good range of technical skills – and these can always be improved – the emphasis will need to also change to include a wider range of people and business management skills.

We also recently surveyed the attitudes and concerns of large dairy farmers across the UK – businesses with more than 500 cows. Surprisingly, their most pressing concerns related to the recruitment, retention and employment of staff.

They are generally good at arranging and funding practical training such as foot-trimming, tractor-driving, and fertility and nutrition courses. Broader management-style courses are, however, attended less often.

Growing pains

As businesses get bigger, though, managers are likely to spend more time supervising and motivating their teams and less time getting their hands dirty.

Some people shy away from this and our research shows that the best managers quickly learn that letting go of practical farming tasks is essential, however much they liked doing them, if they want to expand their business.

Developing a larger business requires a shift in emphasis in how managers spend their time, from being task-focused towards being leadership-focused.

How do people develop this skill? In our survey of large farms, we found that networking with other like-minded farmers and belonging to a discussion group were common attributes. We also found that in many cases, farming was a second career or the individual had broadened their experience across several farming businesses.

Have a vision

Farmers need to set aside appropriate time to think about how they want the business to look in five or 10 years. It involves creating a vision: how big is it going to be, how profitable and what will the key drivers be?

One way to think about it is, if Farmers Weekly was writing about your farm in five years’ time, what would the headline be? This a very simple but effective starting point, and more sophistication can be added later. The challenge is to work out what needs to be done to make the headline come true.

It is quite difficult to do that on your own, so speaking to consultants or other farmers, or getting involved in a professional body is essential.

Where do staff fit?

Staff also have to be included in setting the big picture. They are the people who will implement that vision. Financial rewards for them are nice, but just as important is showing them what their chances of progression will be in the business in the future.

A range of courses around the UK focus on the management of the farm business rather than the technical aspects. These develop broader leadership skills and are run, for example, by the Institute of Agricultural Management, the Worshipful Company of Farmers, DairyCo or commercial enterprises such as Promar.

One Herefordshire farmer we have worked with had just taken on his father’s farm, which had had 180 cows for a generation.

On the drive back from a leadership course in Exeter with his new business partner, they decided they wanted to rethink the business fundamentally, to build a different future for the next 30 years. They formed a plan to expand to 500 cows.

The emphasis on all of these courses is on developing a wider view of how farms can be run in the future, mid- to long-term vision-setting for the business, networking with other successful farmers (not just from the dairy sector) and understanding what is happening in the wider world of agriculture and food, and in some cases beyond.

In summary – being a good “technical” farmer is a prerequisite for success. But the bigger challenge might be for farmers to become good leaders of their businesses and find that managing the people is just as important as the cows.