Personnel management in today’s feedyard is a different ballgame than it was years ago. “It started out as ‘my way or the highway. If you don’t want to work here, I’ve got somebody who will fill your shoes in the morning,’” says Bill Mies, Texas A&M University emeritus professor in feedyard management.
But things are different now, says Mies, who spent 14 years as a feedyard manager in addition to his academic career. “Today, the employee pool has shrunk and the level of skilled labor within that employee pool has shrunk dramatically. We simply can’t afford that kind of turnover anymore. So we’ve got to think about ways to encourage longevity in the feedyard.” By the way, these employee-management principles also apply to ranching operations.
In Mies’ experience, cross-training is a valuable tool. “Sending a couple of pen riders to drive feed trucks every once in a while and a couple of feed truck drivers to ride pens, it’s a good thing,” he says. “It breaks the routine. It gives them skills they may not have had before.”
While that’s good for the manager, because you’ve always got somebody who can fill in when you’re short-handed, it has long-term benefits, too. “The biggest advantage is it broke up the ‘us and them’ philosophies that different groups get into in a feedyard,” and makes management easier, he says.
“And as you give people greater skill, you make them more valuable. That engenders loyalty.” While the risk is that an employee will take those newly developed skills elsewhere, Mies says it’s a risk worth taking.
“I always felt I’d rather have people working for me that other people were trying to hire than the ones nobody wanted. If I could train them, make them that valuable person that somebody else wanted to hire, I was still getting a better person working for me every day they were here. So we’ve got to put more time and investment into our people,” Mies says.
According to Martin Daharsh, general manager at Centerfire Feedyard in Moscow, KS, part of solving the “how you gonna keep ’em down at the feedyard” dilemma is creating a culture that emphasizes life outside the feedyard. “We put a tremendous amount of effort a few years ago into making sure we were paying people very well,” Daharsh says, not just at his feedyard, but across the Cactus Feeders landscape, of which Centerfire is part.
But the paycheck is only part of the equation. It doesn’t matter how much you pay somebody, Daharsh says, “If you work him dark to dark, seven days a week and he’s not getting days off, pretty soon it’s not going to stick. So our philosophy has been as much to (not only) be very committed to providing our people a good living, but also providing a quality of life. Because if they don’t have a life outside the feedyard, it’s not going to stick.”
His intent is to take care of business and get everything done in a nine-hour day. “We’re doing that with technology and with equipment. That’s very important, especially with today’s generation. They want that time off; they want that time with their family.”
He admits he’s had to adapt, but he says the long-term benefits have been successful. “There’s a standing rule at my yard. If I find out that you had a kid who had a parent-teacher conference or a ballgame or piano recital or whatever it was, and you were at the feedyard and not there, we’re going to have a pretty good-sized problem. The family always has to come first,” Daharsh says.