People skills needed on large dairy farms

Farmers with expanding dairy herds have to focus less on looking after cows and more on managing people, according to Sussex dairy farmer Joe Delves.

Speaking on a CAFRE webinar on Tuesday evening, Delves gave an overview of his Nuffield Scholarship where he visited large dairy units in the southern hemisphere.

“The guys who were doing it right really focused on people. They really put the people that they employed at the centre of what they did. They were very good with cows, but they really concentrated on people,” he said.

Delves has expanded his own dairy business considerably in recent years. There were 140 cows on the family farm when he took it over in 2005, but he is now milking 920 cows across four farms.

Interestingly, none of his 12 staff are from farming backgrounds: “We found that you can train people with no experience as you want, so they learn it your way and they do it your way.”

But hiring farm staff doesn’t always go to plan and Delves admitted that firing a member of staff can feel “extremely personal” in a small business like a dairy farm.

“We give them three months’ probation and set agreed targets when they first come. Once we get to the end of that period, if they are not achieving those targets, we just let them go,” he said.

Delves maintained that farmers should take time to build relationships with their staff and should regularly talk to them about non-farming related matters.

His advice is to give staff plenty of opportunities to progress, and this mainly comes down to offering training.

“It’s your obligation as an employer [to train your staff] and you shouldn’t expect life-long commitment in return. I’ve heard so many farmers complain that they trained someone and then they left, but it would be worse if you didn’t train them and they stayed forever,” Delves said.