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How can producers overcome labor shortages?

April 28, 2022
Jorge Delgado on-farm speaking with man

Alltech is partnering with the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach to develop free online resources that help employees better understand the "hows" and "whys" of handling cows on a dairy farm.

Attracting and retaining workers is one of the biggest challenges facing the dairy industry. Jennifer Bentley, dairy field specialist with the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Program, and Jorge Delgado, Alltech on-farm specialist, join the Ag Future podcast to discuss an exciting new program that provides producers and employees with valuable resources to attract and retain employees. 

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Jennifer Bentley & Jorge Delgado hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.


Tom Martin:             We’re joined from Minneapolis by Alltech on-farm specialist Jorge Delgado.

                                 Welcome, Jorge.

Jorge Delgado:        Thank you, Tom.

Tom Martin:            And online with us from Decorah, Iowa, is Jennifer Bentley, a dairy field specialist with the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Program, where Jen develops an educational program for dairy producers and the industry.

                                 Hi, Jennifer.

Jennifer Bentley:      Hello. Thanks for having me.

Tom Martin:            So, question for each of you. I guess we’ll begin with Jorge. What are — what would you say are the most important issues and challenges that confront farming management and labor?

Jorge Delgado:        Yes, Tom. That’s a great question. You know, like everywhere else right now in agriculture, you know, finding people and retaining people is the number-one problem in farming — especially in the dairy industry.

                                The labor pool for agriculture has been shrinking, and the industry is now facing the reality of finding many ways to try to attract and retain employees due to the lack of understanding or how to keep employees motivated in an environment where, you know, there (are) long hours and the lack of benefits is very challenging.

                                So, the producers are, for the most part, are really not prepared to face the reality. Milking is one of the most labor-intense areas on the farm, on a dairy farm. So, to produce high-quality milk products and keep animals healthy, we have to consistently have, you know, milking the cows in a very consistent way, even two or three times a day. So this is vital to the farm.

                                So, keeping these guys motivated is a big, big problem. So, this challenge is the number-one problem not only in the dairy industry but agriculture in general.

Tom Martin:           Jen, what do you see?

Jennifer Bentley:      I would agree with much of the same of what Jorge has mentioned, just that labor pool for finding people in agricultural positions — and, you know, we’re getting further and further generations removed from working on agricultural farms. And so, it takes that motivation and takes that training to get those employees engaged and — and to stay on these farms.

                                 And so, I think (he’s) definitely right, you know: We’re trying to attract employees, and we also want to be able to keep our cows and calves healthy through all that.

Tom Martin:           To what extent is the ag industry dependent on immigrant labor?

Jorge Delgado:        Very high. The percentage is very, very high. In agriculture, I mean, if you — if you see — if you travel to California, where a lot of the, you know, produce comes from, you’re going to see a lot of immigrant labor performing all those tasks by hand.

                                You know, you look at strawberry fields, lettuce fields, tomato fields, (and) it’s going to be — it’s going to be very, very dependable on, you know, immigration.

                                So, and we see this because they are — for the most part, they are the only ones willing to do these kind of jobs. The circumstances for working at a, you know, there are no fair conditions for work. So, we estimate that around 60% of the milk produced in this country depends on immigrant labor. So, all those dairy farms, you know, at least for milking cows and many, many more positions in those roles in the dairy are dependable, highly dependable, on immigrant labor.

Tom Martin:            You mentioned earlier that retaining talent, retaining workers, is one of the number-one challenges facing the industry. Why is that?

Jorge Delgado:        I think one of the things that we see is that, you know, like I mentioned, right now, it’s, you know, the — it is hard to work on agriculture. It’s really hard to work on there. It’s long hours, you know; we have to — you know, the cows, they never stop milking. We have to milk cows, like we mentioned, two or three times a day, you know, seven days a week for 365 days of the year. So, it’s not easy, and somebody has to do it.

                                So, coming to this industry, with those long hours and not presenting the workers to, you know, a fair work condition is really — it really makes it really, really hard.

                                And nowadays, you know, there are so many openings outside of agriculture that we are competing with, with many other businesses, like construction, landscaping, hotels, restaurants, for the same kind of pool (of) labor that agriculture is dependable on, so it makes it really hard.

                                Plus, agriculture doesn’t receive a lot of payment for what they do. You know, milk is a product that doesn’t receive high payment compared to, you know, the products like construction or hotels. So, there are a lot of competition for the same kind of labor. So, first is environment and the second is, of course, the payment. It’s really hard to compete with that.

Tom Martin:            And you have mentioned that producers might want to be thinking about other approaches, like safety and education, as a way of keeping people. Can you elaborate on that?

Jorge Delgado:        Yes. One of the ways that — and this is the reason why, why we’re here and why they were working with Jennifer, is because we are creating a platform where, through education, we’re trying to retain people coming into agriculture, and mainly (the) dairy industry.

                                Many of these guys, they feel like there’s no motivation besides their, you know, not being taken, not being paid, you know, fairly. One of the things that we believe with Jennifer is that through education, these people will see the dairy industry as a place where they can be listened to, they be — they will be reliable, and they will taken care of.      

                                So, we just want to transform them, and we want to see producers to — and doing that: just being proactive on retaining employees through education and through safety and just improve the management skills.

Tom Martin:            You advocate for educating farm workers so they can be good at what they do, which is also, of course, good for the farm. What sorts of education do you recommend?

Jorge Delgado:        Well, we have to be very, very visual, Tom, and hands-on. As you mentioned before, you know, agriculture depends a lot on immigrant workers. So, when we talk about immigrant workers, you know, we talk about countries mainly for, like, Mexico or Central America. We see more and more people coming here from Nicaragua, Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

                                 And, unfortunately for these people coming here, these countries, they have a lack of education and investing in these kind of people, and that’s the reason why they are here.

                                So, when they come here, they come here with low levels of education, and the expectations from these guys are very high. So, because of the lack of education and lack of understanding, you know, working with the cattle industry situation, we have to, have to lower the expectations on how they receive education and training. So, we have to create a lot of visual materials, such as posters, movies, animations, and a lot of hands-on training and practices that these guys can understand.

                                 And in some cases, some — in many cases, even the guys coming now from Guatemala or even South Mexico, they don’t even speak Spanish as a first language, you know; they speak dialect. And dialects are really, really hard to understand and really hard to translate, so we need to start thinking about even doing more, more visuals, or maybe through animations or creating materials like that, so people that don’t know how to read and people that speak dialect, they understand what are we trying to do, so they feel reliable when it comes to, you know, performing the work.

Tom Martin:           Jen, that must present some challenges to you and what you do.

Jennifer Bentley:     Most definitely. I think we’re seeing a very high need for additional resources in training employees, whether they’re Spanish-speaking or English-speaking. And that kind of brought us to partnering with University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Alltech, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach to develop the three online trainings that could be accessed to producers, to employees who want to be able to better train themselves, to better train their dairy farm employees, to help them better understand their “hows” and “whys” that they’re handling their cows — you know, why are they milking cows a certain way; why are they moving cows a certain way. Because we know that when employees understand the “whys” of their job, they’ll more than likely perform their job at increased efficiency and (have) a more motivated ability to do their job.

                                So, with this training program that we developed, it is actually an online training program. And so, an employee or a dairy farm manager would log into this online training, and within that training site, they’re going to be able to walk through or view some learning modules.

We’ve developed eight different learning modules within milk quality, and so those include understanding mastitis, understanding udder health when we take a look at teat evaluation, singeing udders, understanding winter and cracked teats, taking care of how to evaluate milk quality — so, understanding how to read a CMT or collect a milk sample, going through the recommended milking procedure, what that looks like visually. So, walking through and looking through a video and understanding each one of those steps.

Understanding how we handle those animals when removing them to and from the milking parlor. So, we want to be able to handle these animals in a calm manner. And so, how do we properly handle those? So that’s another module that we walk through.

And then, also, things that happen out in the barn. So, not only is it important to understand what happens in the milking parlor, but also, when we’re out in that barn, bringing those cows up, what does the freestall barn look like? What type of bedding surface are they on? Are they clean and dry? In the summertime, do they have access to sprinklers and water? Things like that.

So, kind of bringing in the whole process of taking care of those animals and bringing it back down to the milking parlor and the milking system, where they’re actually going to be doing the majority of their job. So, those eight learning modules will walk through that, and they do accompany (those modules) through videos and resource materials.

So, if you’re logged into the online training, participants will be able to complete a quiz at each of — at the end of each of these learning modules. And if they complete those quizzes, then they’re eligible to receive a certificate of completion for each of the modules.

So, it’s something that they can print off and show their employer that, “Yes, I’ve, you know, completed these training modules; I’ve received some education about how to handle these animals.” And each of these training modules are presented in Spanish with English subtitles, and the quizzes are offered in English — both English and Spanish. And the Spanish quizzes also include some audio translation.

So, we’ve made it accessible for people to easily interpret the information. And the videos include demonstrations of on-farm practices that we really emphasize, key milking and management techniques.

So, along with those videos, we’ve also created some additional resources that they’d be able to print off and keep, maybe, in their break rooms, or if they’re having a milker training that day, they could review — print those off and review those as part of their, as part of their education to have there.

We’ve also created some animations that have really helped to explain more details of why cows or how cows develop mastitis. And so, when we can visually see somatic cells going up into teat ends and understand how that affects the cow, then they can interpret that as trying to better manage their milking protocols within the parlor, talking about hygiene, the milking process, the milking procedure.

But also, the other animation that we’ve created is from food to milk. So, kind of understanding the whole — the whole process of when that cow is eating or trying to keep that cow healthy by providing the right nutrients but, also, how she converts that food or feed into milk and why she is such, you know, a powerhouse for creating that milk and how that milk process happens.

So, those two animations really kind of show how we can produce a high-quality product.

Tom Martin:           Jorge, what sorts of tools are needed to make positive changes in things like milk quality and cow health and well-being?

Jorge Delgado:        Well, Tom, you know, sometimes, when people ask that question, you know, people (are) asking directly, too, you know, what we need to do, you know, to improve that, you know, the milk quality of that cow or coming from that cow for the well-being for, like, that cow.

                                And most of us will respond like, “Well, that cow needs proper nutrition, you know, biogenetics, and the right management.” But I — we think that, you know, there’s a lot of people behind what — what’s happening, you know, behind the animals behind these cows.

                                So, I think it’s all about the people behind the animals. So, we believe that in order to improve or, you know, make positive changes in things like milk quality and well-being, I think we need to work with the employees and take care of the employees first, because they are the ones behind the cows.

                                So, we think that providing the employees with the tools that they need to do their job successfully is the first thing. And in these things, we can include, you know, well-maintained equipment, for example. You know, some — many times, you know, we go to a parlor in dairy farms, and these guys, they want to do the right job; they want to know those cows; they want to get it done; they want to do it the right way.

                                But many times, the milking equipment is not working. So many times, you know, the winter climate Jennifer mentioned, it is very cold, you know; sometimes, the cows are more comfortable than people in the parlor.

                                           So, we have to think about the people first if we want to change to conditions. And one of the ways that we can do this is just to provide the right tools and, also, showing signs of appreciation, like, you know, pizza parties when you are doing a meeting with the employees to — when you’re training them, you can provide pizza, snacks or something like that.

                                Remember these guys on Christmas times or their birthdays. Those are very important for their culture. Or even branded clothing or clothes for the dairy.

And mainly, I think — and, again, we’re repeating this over and over again that, you know, providing safety trainings and other educational resources will really make the difference behind milk quality animal welfare, because if we educate them, if we train these guys, those things will come after these.

So, and it’s important to know that that we rely on these guys. These guys are the first guys looking at those cows, milking these cows, moving these cows, breeding these cows, taking care of these cows. So, if we treat these guys right, then these guys will feel that they are part of the business, they will feel like a partner of the business, and then they will come with feedbacks and solutions with ideas that will improve all these things — all these things that you’re asking as far as milk quality and welfare.

So, in our opinion, things start with people behind the cows first.

Tom Martin:            Jorge, your work in dairy goes all the way back to Ecuador, and so you’ve been around the industry, you’ve been around cattle your whole life. And I’m just wondering: is — do cows pick up on human stress? If everybody in the, in the milking parlor is stressed out, are the cattle picking up on that?

Jorge Delgado:        You bet. That’s an excellent question. They do. You know, their brain is smaller than our brain, so they have to use a lot of the senses. Their senses are very developed. And one of those senses is smell, so they use it a lot. So, they can pick up on, you know, our hormones, you know, being released over stress and anything. As they stress from other animals, from picking up from the smells from their urine or excrement, whatever, they will do the same with — with humans.

                                So, they will read through our body language, and they will read through our — their senses that we are not comfortable in our situation, that we’re stressed, that, you know, we have anxiety, and the animals will react to that. And they don’t want to be approached by humans in those situations, so they will flee from us.

                                So, it will make very hard to work with, with animals when we are, you know, under a lot of pressure. So, it will be very, very hard to handle and move those animals.

                                 An example of that is when we’re trying to milk a fresh cow or a fresh heifer — a heifer that has, you know, the first calf (for) the first time that’s never been in a parlor before, in the milking parlor. So, when she enters, the parlor is going to be a new situation, a new environment, because she is scared; she’s very, very scared. And instead, what we do is we react, you know, by pressuring that animal, and then she starts smelling that — that reaction from us, so it’s going to be harder and harder.

So, and it happens to all the animals, to other cows; they can sense that, too. And we have to be very patient when it comes to milking cows especially, so we have to be in situations where we don’t cause a lot of stress.

Tom Martin:            Back to the subject of employees and keeping them comfortable and on board. What makes a farm successful in developing and also, then, retaining good employees?

Jorge Delgado:        I think, you know, like Jennifer explained, everything starts with — with a good training program. The training is really, you know — some people think that payment is the number-one reason why, you know, people stay in job, especially in agriculture. And it is, but it’s not totally. You know, I think motivations through training, through education, through understanding is what really makes these guys (want) to — to develop the employee.

                                So, what these guys, they want is from the owner or the manager of the farm to explain to these guys how to do the job properly. And that’s the way that you explain that is explain the “whys” and “hows” on how they have to do protocols for tasks. So, that’s very important.

                                So, the other things we have to remember that, like we say before, many of these guys, they don’t have experience with cattle. If they have experience with cattle in the past, coming from countries that — poor countries, like (in) Central America or Mexico, they might milk, you know, one or two cows for survival, but here, it’s a total different experience. We’re milking 200 cows, 500 cows, thousands of cows, and we expect a lot.

                                           So, for these guys, to start driving feed loaders or to deliver a calf is very, very new, so we have to start with the right things to avoid any — any kind of expectation where they go feel frustrated and leave the work.

                                 So — and besides training, also, (provide) continued education over and over again and provide a good environment for work, recognize these guys, make them relevant to the dairy industry.

Sometimes we forget that, you know, they are not just milking cows; they are feeding this nation. So, when you are having milk with your cereal or cheese in your burger or cheese in your pizza, we have to remind these guys that, you know, they are not just milking cows, but they are feeding people like you and me and your family and my family. So, make them feel relevant and important and proud of what they do and just, you know, have clear and understandable goals.

Many times, we set up goals that are — that these guys don’t understand, so we need to clarify those goals and make them easy for these guys to understand.

We mentioned pay conditions. They have to be fair conditions where they feel safe to work in the, in locations where they are milking cows. And just remember that this is an ongoing process. Some people think that this is just a one-thing deal where you train them once or you make them feel relevant once, but this is something that you need to keep going over and over and over again all the time.

And that’s where, you know, many, many of us, we fail, because we start thinking about other things and we forgot about the data. So, these guys, they need to be reminded about the training, the education, the culture, the safety, and the importance of what they do in a regular basis, all the time. So, that’s what we need to do.

Tom Martin:            Jennifer, there are some surveys out there that show how training and education make a difference. Can you tell us about those?

Jennifer Bentley:     Sure. You know, over the course of years in the dairy industry, extension dairy teams have done surveys on farms to kind of get an idea of managers, employees and how that relates to jobs and employee retention. And a lot of these surveys are coming back (saying) that employees are more successful in their jobs and they’re retained at a higher rates if there is training offered, and particularly in their native language.

                                So, if we can offer more training resources more regularly, like Jorge was saying — just, you know, ongoing all the time — we’re better able to retain those employees.

                                 And as mentioned before, you know, it’s not just the monetary value that employees are getting — employees are getting out of this, but the education really satisfy — satisfies that employee’s drive to comprehend and, you know, be a critical dairy employee on the farm, being able to do those jobs correctly no matter what the experience levels these people are coming in at or proper — or what training levels they’ve been at before.

Offering them very consistent programs as they develop their skills is going to be able to challenge them and motivate them to want to learn more and, hence, retain their jobs.

Tom Martin:            I’d like to ask each of you to give us three things that can be done today to improve on-farm culture. You want to go first, Jorge?

Jorge Delgado:        Yes, Tom. Thank you. I think the first thing that we need to do is to start with a mission statement that involves the workers. You know, many, many employee handbooks, they have really nice written mission statements, but when it comes to the mission statement, they don’t link the workers to these; they don’t make them part of these.

Like, (it might be a) good mission statement, but the workers need to be part of it. They — he needs or she needs to feel part of the mission statement, that “why,” and find a “why” for him and “why” for her and “why” for the producers.

The second thing is I’d say that you need to involve your worker in your decision-making. When I was working on a dairy, you know, one, one day, the owner of the dairy decides to change the new liners to milk cows, and we were never consulted to do that. And we were the ones — or I was the one in charge of milking cows, and he decides to make that change. And to our surprise, those things were, you know, something that we didn’t like. We didn’t know how to use them, and it was — they were not good for the cows.

                                 So, I think, (in) my experience, you know, in every decision that we make, we need to involve the workers, because they know that they are the ones who are in front of the cows and working with the cows.

                                           And the third thing is, many dairies, they don’t have a culture. So, there might be an existing one, they don’t realize that there’s already one, and they, they — the first thing that they need to do is just start creating one. And they way that they can start doing that is by start asking questions.

                                One thing that we do with the farmers is we do an internal survey that, you know, workers, they answer to several questions, and they don’t write their names down. But it’s a way to find the strengths and find also the weak points of the — of the farm, so you can improve or you can maintain what you have. So, I think the first thing is just to create the culture.

                                So, those are my three things.

Tom Martin:            Jen, from you, three things that a producer can do to make for a better on-farm culture?

Jennifer Bentley:     Sure. Well, I concur a lot with what Jorge has already said. And you know, our ultimate goal is to make positive changes in our dairy operations: to improve milk quality, overall cow health and well-being, and just have a general sense of positivity with our dairy farm employees, too.

                                So, really providing those employees with the tools that they need to do their job — and that can mean a lot of different things, right? So, depending on the time of year, whether that’s summertime or wintertime, you know, providing employees with the type of clothing that they need to be outside so they feel protected and they feel safe doing their jobs.

                                If they’re in the parlor, you know, making sure that the milking system has been maintained so they can do their jobs efficiently. If we’re expecting them to be in a skid loader, have we maintained, you know, the oil changes, the upkeeps, the maintenance that’s required with the machineries that they’re operating? So, you know, making sure that they’re getting the tools that they need to complete their jobs efficiently is very important.

And then, providing continuing education, and I also think that starts on day one of their jobs. So, you know, day one, they’re coming into this job — what are those expected things that they should be aware of when they walk onto the farm? You know, what should I wear? Should I bring my lunch? Where should I park my vehicle? What documents do I need? What should I not bring to work? What will I do on my first day of work?

So, kind of relieving that anxiety or that tension of, you know, their first day on the job and then, continuing that throughout their whole career on that farm. So, as they have questions, being there to help answer those questions and make sure that they — they feel like they’re a part of the whole dairy operation. As Jorge was saying, you know, just involving those workers with your decision-making process.

And then, as we mentioned before, showing signs of appreciation. I think that really drives home the whole kind of — the whole atmosphere of the dairy farm operation, for involving them with the day-to-day things on the farm, the day-to-day decision-making. But then, also, showing our signs of appreciation for the things that maybe they’ve gone above and beyond to do, or they’ve maintained things where — where you like them to be, such as, you know, somatic cell count. So, we want to maintain a consistent or low level of somatic cells.  

And if they’re doing the things properly, maybe we are giving them a bonus or we’re giving them a pizza party, those types of things, just to show some gratitude within our jobs.

Tom Martin:            I guess the bottom line is, as a morale booster, nothing beats that feeling that you’re valued.

Jennifer Bentley:      I would say, yeah. Just, you know, any job that we walk into, we want to be treated with respect. So, from the very beginning, we want to be able to make sure that that employee gets started off on a good foot.

Tom Martin:            All right. We’ve been talking with Alltech on-farm specialist Jorge Delgado, with us from Minneapolis.

                                Thanks, Jorge.

Jorge Delgado:        You’re very welcome, Tom. Thanks for the invitation.

Tom Martin:            And from Decorah, Iowa, Jennifer Bentley, now on her twelfth year as a dairy field specialist with the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Program.

                                Thank you, Jennifer.

Jennifer Bentley:     Thanks for having me on today.

Tom Martin:           This has been Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Thank you for joining us. Be sure to subscribe to Ag Future wherever you listen to podcasts.