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Labor 5 min read

Managing Cows is Easy. Managing People is a Challenge.

Written by Mike Wise

Twenty years ago, I was a young college graduate right out of school. I was still working in the retail world in a job that was only meant to get me through college. The problem was I was making good money and while supporting my young family, starting over at a new job seemed overwhelming.

Soon, I was offered my first real management job at the local Best Buy in Anchorage Alaska. Store 539 was one of the largest single stores in the Best Buy chain and in those days, annual revenues typically exceeded $70,000,000. What this meant is that product flowed unceasingly through those doors. My job over the merchandising department was to ensure the displays were functional and the product was available to the customer.

Most of the actual product stocking was handled by the department supervisors, so my main task was to maintain the semi-permanent displays, supplied by large brand suppliers like Apple, Samsung, and LG. To accomplish this goal, I was supplied with a team of 2 employees… and yes, I was one of those two!

My first big supervisor job was supervising one person!

That was probably the hardest, and most stressful job I have ever had. A few years later I was promoted to store manager and oversaw a team of 130 employees… and that job was easier than my first 2-person managerial experience.

Transition From Cows to People

Fast forward to today, in a new industry… I have learned that managing a dairy herd of any size, takes a level of commitment and dedication that makes my days at Best Buy seem like a walk in the park. However, I have observed that the universal challenge of managing people can make or break any business.

In my last 7 years in the dairy industry, I have also learned that every owner/dairyman I’ve been involved with has a passion and… dare I say, love for the animals that are the backbone of their business. Further observation shows these same people that have grown their operation past a certain point, have universally had to face a single reality. Their largest role change is to take off the dairyman hat and put on the people manager hat. It is this critical transition that makes their business successful.

In my experience, I have yet to meet a dairy owner that did not grow up working on a dairy. Dairy is in their blood, and they just know what is needed to take care of their animals, however we all know, taking care of people is another story.

Read Dr. Tripp's Article: Perception Versus Reality

Because of that, I hope to use my 20-year people managing perspective to create some parallels to help cow managers transition from dairy cows to the needs of dairy employees.


Here are three parallels I have observed.

1. Employers Supply the Essential to Life

Whether directly supplying facilities or simply through the wages paid, an employer provides essentials to his employees. An employee may depend upon this for their very life, and for their families.

When considering the socio-economic situation that most agricultural laborers find themselves in, the adage of “no work, no eat,” comes into stark realization. As with a dairy cow—without the continuous support and supply from the dairy owner, many dairy employees would find themselves in a challenging survival situation.

What does this mean?

It means that in many situations a dairy worker is motivated on a survival level to maintain employment. This is often evident by the recurrence of rehiring employees that have either left for other opportunities that did not pan out or were terminated… but given another chance. Sometimes this works out and sometimes not… a reality I think many are all too familiar with.

My experience is that most people want to do a good job and take a great deal of pride in what they do—whether stocking shelves at a Best Buy or milking cows.

This brings me to possibly the greatest necessity that befalls a dairy owner to provide. Whether dealing with cows or dealing with employees, an employer must give respect.

Read Dr. Tripp's Article: People, Processes, or Tools

As I stated above… at a certain point, a dairy cannot be successful without a functional employee base. That success depends as much on those employees as the cows that produce the end-product. An errant kick from a disgruntled, un-respected employee, can do a farm more damage than from an unruly cow.

2. Employers provide clear Direction

The bane of any dairyman is a gate left open. Gates keep cows safe, keep them where they belong, and ensure they cannot hurt themselves, others, or property.

Pen moves sometimes involved a complicated series of sort gates, chutes, and intermediate pens. When correctly executed cows easily move from one location to another free of stress. The gates are for the well-being and security of the cows. If pen relocations are routine and clearly defined, most cows make the move on their own with little need of coaxing.

How we direct and instruct employees is no different. Directions and barriers are created to help workplace processes be as easy and stress free as possible. When there are clear guidelines, and the expectations are well-defined, not only can productivity be improved, but employee frustration and confusion can be minimized or eliminated.

Read Dr. Tripp's Article: The Why, Versus Go and Do

Why is a gate left open a problem?

What do employees do when a proverbial gate is left open?

3. Consistency is Key

A dairy cow is just as excited to eat that High Cow ration she was fed today as she was yesterday… and the day before that, and the day before that. In fact, nutrition and health studies have repeatedly shown that animals thrive on a consistent dietary routine. This is shown by improved production levels and an improvement in overall animal well-being.

The same principle has been shown with regards to improved living conditions and climate control.

At this point, I think you can see where this is going… With employees, simple practices that are clearly defined and consistent, lead to employee performance and satisfaction.

Just like with feeding or livestock care, often there is no need to reinvent the wheel. You know what needs to be done and how to do it. The question is, do your employees know your expectations? And do you follow up on those expectations consistently?

Read Dr. Tripp's article: The Invisible Person

Regular follow-up on even the most mundane of tasks can ensure it is consistently and correctly being done. When the basics are being done right, you can focus on what matters.


Managing People Matters

In the beginning, I talked about the critical transition from a cow manager to a people manager. I feel most owners/operators find this to be the biggest challenge, but it also represents the point at which your business has the greatest potential to grow.

If an owner can, let go of the cow reigns and trust the people they hire... they can turn their dairy into a business operation with profitability and success that was previously unavailable to them.

Read Dr. Tripp's article: The Interview

Consistency is the guiding principle in managing both cows and people!

I have managed people for the better part of my career. My purpose is to invite some thought on a subject I am very familiar with, but also point out some undeniable realities.

Successful employee management keeps a business constant.

A dairy with the very best genetic stock, the best feed formulation, the very best vets, milked in a state-of-the-art parlor—will still fail without people performing at their jobs.

In the end, even though the vast majority of society does not think about who is doing these jobs when they pick out their favorite flavor of ice cream from the freezer or pour that 2% over their bowl of sugar-frosted fruity O’s…

We know what it really takes… and why it matters.

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