Staff are the key to any business, but why can farmers, who are also employers, be sometimes reluctant to secure the best team around them? And why is it so important to a business’ bottom line? Clemmie Gleeson finds out more.
Shropshire dairy farmer Tim Downes believes staff development is a big investment, but one which is repaid ‘10 times over’.
“You need to train staff so they are competent and always progressing and feel like they are part of the team,” says Tim, who employs five people across his two organic dairy herds, which total nearly 500 cows.
“We have a young workforce which tends to want the opportunity to build knowledge and develop new skills and ideas.” Tim runs regular reviews and appraisals, which he says are important for identifying any skills gaps and pro-actively funds training courses for his employees, which range from homeopathy and artificial insemination to trailer training, chainsaw and telehandler use.
Tim says: “The cost of training courses may be off-putting to some farm businesses.
It is not cheap – a trailer course, for example, can cost from £300 to £1,000 depending on the level.
But the benefits to my business have been huge.” Developing his employees’ knowledge has improved animal health and welfare, as staff are confident in being able to spot signs of problems earlier.
Similarly, being able to competently use telescopic handlers and ATVs reassures Tim he is doing all he can to ensure his team’s safety.
He says: “Training is a good team building exercise too.
It is hard to compare what the business would be like if it were only me driving trailers or working a chainsaw, for example, but it has definitely improved our productivity to have employees with all those skills.
In particular, the homoeopathy training has enabled us to access the US premium milk pool, which would not be possible if we did not have everybody trained up.” Accessing new ideas and learning best practice is also key and involvement in discussion groups with other farmers is also hugely important, so Tim and his team have missed not being able to attend them this year due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Peer training has a place too, particularly for students on work placements, and Tim has hosted about 35 Harper Adams University students over the years.
He says: “We do on the job training to upskill them, teaching them new techniques, particularly if they are not from a dairy farming background.”
Shaun McKay is herd manager for Tim and has been working for him for two-and-a-half years.
Over that time Shaun has attended many training courses, including a three-day homoeopathic course, a refresher course in artificial insemination and, more recently, a longer course on entrepreneurship in dairying.
All of the training, plus opportunities to attend conferences, have helped him develop skills, knowledge and confidence.
“The entrepreneurs course looked at the business side, such as business plans and milk contracts and putting a business plan together, as well as staff management,” says Shaun, who won a silver award winner in this year’s Farm Worker of the Year at the British Farming Awards.
“It has opened my mind to things I could do in the future and I hope to have my own contract farming or joint venture agreement in a few years.” In the meantime though, Shaun is highly motivated to continue improving herd health and performance at the farm.
He says: “When your employer enables you to go on a training course, it makes you want to help drive the business forward more.
The better you do for that business, the better it is for you and your future.” Since attending the artificial insemination (AI) refresher course, Shaun has been working with the herd’s AI technician and, as a result, overall herd fertility has improved.
Spending time away from the farm to attend courses, conferences or meetings has also proved beneficial for Shaun.
He says: “It has been brilliant to network with people of a similar age, meet key speakers and get my name and face out there.” Being given a chance to become more involved with the farm business he works for has prompted a deeper loyalty and pride.
Shaun says: “It is a good feeling to be involved; like you are making a difference and I like the job satisfaction whether that be from seeing the cows looking well and getting into calf in a certain time window or being able to control their mastitis homoeopathically.
“It feels more like it is your own, not just a job.
You are not just a worker, you are there to improve things.”
Shaun's Career Tips
JOHN Haynes, farm manager at M.J. and S.C. Collins, says: “We invest in machinery and infrastructure, so why not in our staff as well.” The business farms more than 1,214 hectares (3,000 acres) of arable crops across three sites in East Hertfordshire and West Essex.
John has a team of four full-time staff plus seasonal workers.
And with the loss of subsidies and Brexit on the horizon, investing in staff is more important than ever, he adds.
“There will be huge pressure to cut costs and be sustainable, but you cannot do that if your staff do not understand what is going on.” Some training, such as health and safety, is essential, while other areas are about developing the skills the employee is keen to learn.
John says: “It very much depends on the individual and what they are interested in.” The business, which has a team of four full-time staff plus seasonal workers, is a member of the Chelmsford and West Essex Training Group which organises courses hosted by local farms.
Staff who are well-trained get more out of machinery, he says.
John also recognises the value of developing staff by giving them responsibility for certain tasks across the area of arable managed.
Ownership John says: “James, my assistant manager, has taken ownership of the winter maintenance programme.
He is taking the lead and driving it.” John is also keen to share all aspects of the business with his team and those who are interested in the budgeting and planning are welcomed to spend time with him in the office for an insight into that side of the farm.
He says: “I got to where I am because I had the opportunities.
It is experience as much as training.” He is particularly keen to support and encourage new entrants to the industry.
“We need the younger generation to get involved.
We need their enthusiasm and intelligence as farming evolves.” While it is hard to measure the possible productivity increases from his investment in his staff, John is sure of the benefits of having employees who are engaged and motivated.
He says: “If you are constantly having to recruit and retrain new staff, you are not getting anywhere, you are just treading water.”
James Houseman is assistant manager for M.J. and S.C. Collins, where he has worked for nearly three years.
He has welcomed the opportunities to attend courses and other learning opportunities.
He says: “We are a busy company, but we still get on and book courses, although it has been difficult this year.” In pre-Covid-19 times, he would also attend agronomy meetings with other local farmers, encouraged by John to develop a broader knowledge.
James says: “We have an annual appraisal where he feedbacks on how we are doing, our strengths and weaknesses and he likes us to do the same thing.
He is open to feedback and constructive criticism.” James attended an assistant managers course in October 2019, which covered how to manage other people.
He says: “It was important for my personal development and has really helped me.
I get on well with the team, but if there is ever a situation I am a bit unsure about I can use what I have learned and link it back to something from the course.” He enjoys John’s approach to welcoming staff input to business decisions.
“He is not afraid of showing us the figures from cashflows and budgets.
It makes you appreciate the cost of everything and why you should respect it.
We also have discussions a couple of times a year after busy times to discuss what went right and what could be improved next time.”
James' career tips
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