"It's a challenge for rural employers to find employees with the skill sets they need," says Sarah Fogleman, Kansas State University Extension economist and a nationally recognized expert in agriculture human resources.

On the other hand, she says, "The economist in me says there's never a labor shortage, just too low of a wage and compensation package."

The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Fogleman explains some cattle operations are finding success looking for help from non-traditional directions. Teachers for summer help leap to mind, as does a collection of part-time retirees who add up to a full-time position. A glaring example of this is a dairy in upstate New York whose nursery calf manager is a retired nurse who spent her career in the neonatal intensive care unit of a large hospital in New York City. She wanted to return to the country she remembered on her grandparent's farm. Suffice it to say, she can tell a sick one.

It also doesn't hurt to be what Fogleman terms an employer of choice.

If someone came through town and stopped at the Gas N' Guzzle on the highway, or the local restaurant, and asked if there was good place around town to work, would your operation be one of the handful of names mentioned?

"Brag about how you take care of employees. Offer school tours. Support the auction at the county fair," says Fogleman. "Do those things not only out of civic responsibility and pride, but also to become recognized not only as a farm or ranch in the community but as an employer in the community."

Still, much of the game comes down to personality. As Fogleman says, "Some employees will always be able to find people who want to work with them and some others will always struggle."

The best defense

Once you've got them rounded up, Fogleman says, "The best thing employers can do -- and you can take this to the bank -- is calculate the value of non-cash benefits employees receive. Do it periodically, be it once a month or once a quarter. And send it home with employees so the spouses see it, too."

It's too easy for a couple of extra bucks per hour somewhere else to look like a better deal. Fogelman has had more than one employer tell her about folks who left for a higher wage, and then wanted their job back in a few months because they figured out they were money ahead because of the benefits they'd been receiving.

"That's not a compensation problem, that's a communication problem," explains Fogleman.

For the record, University of California research sums up employee wage expectations this way: They expect wages to cover basic living expenses, keep up with inflation, and to provide some funds for savings or recreation. Employees also expect wages to increase over time.

"The success of compensation packages isn't measured by the dollar cost to the employer. The success of a compensation package is measured in how difficult it would be to duplicate those same benefits from a competing employer," explains Fogleman. "This refers not just to cash wages but also to direct and indirect benefits, including such items as flexibility in scheduling or working conditions.

"So, step one for any employer who is trying to create a competitive compensation package is to develop an understanding of what their employees need. Step two is to gain an understanding of what competing employers are currently offering."

Whether perks and bonuses are as simple as pizza and suds when a particular goal has been achieved, or as elaborate as a percentage of the value of calves weaned past a target goal, Fogleman emphasizes bonuses should be just that.

"A bonus should not be what employees bank on to make a living," says Fogleman. "Wages should provide the living."