There's an old saying, “You can tell a cowboy, but you can't tell him much.”

But, to keep good cowboys or other feedyard or ranch employees, it takes good pay, good benefits and good communication. It also requires luring them to a job that can be more physically uncomfortable than working “in town.”

Whether you're a two-employee outfit or one with 40 or 50 workers, keeping good help is as difficult as it's ever been. New Wal-Marts in just about any town of more than 5,000 people, mega hog farms in the heart of cattle feeding territory, McDonald's and Pizza Huts, even new dairies, are milking the ag work force.

Stocking shelves may be a lot more attractive than cleaning bunks and breaking ice. And, when winter weather puts even more pressure on keeping cattle eating and healthy, a 70° F discount store interior can be mighty attractive, even at less pay.

Even veteran ranch and feedlot workers, whose independence can run as strong as the employer signing the checks, need special care so they don't move down the road.

But all isn't lost, says Gregorio Billikopf, University of California-Davis professor and a top agricultural employee management expert.

“In general, ag workers love their jobs; cowboys even more so,” Billikopf says. “People who work with cattle tend to love their jobs more than other ag employees. So ranchers and feedlots are starting out with points in their favor.”

Retaining veterans

It can be a challenge, however, to keep a veteran pen rider or feed truck driver on your payroll. Richard Winter, Friona Industries' (FI) feedyard operations manager, who has more than 25 years of experience, has advice on how to get that done.

“First, we provide a competitive wage and reasonable benefits, including life and health insurance,” he says.

But that's just the start for the Amarillo, TX-based feeding operation. FI's employee ratio is below the typical rule of thumb of one worker/1,000 head of cattle on feed. The program also accounts for the type of cattle handled and the number for which each worker is responsible.

“We look at current expenses, where we're spending our money and where it's most effective,” Winter says. “We look at what it costs to handle certain types of cattle. Unweaned sale barn cattle, for example, not only cost more in reduced performance but require extra handling.”

About 50% of FI's feeder calves arrive preconditioned, so they naturally require less doctoring and other attention.

“We can affect inputs on the cattle side and provide our people with more resources and equipment to accomplish their jobs in a timely, safe and efficient manner,” he says.

FI employee numbers average 0.8/1,000 cattle, and less in some areas. Winter says it's the result of FI achieving its goals of working with better cattle and better people. In reducing empoyee numbers, however, care must be taken to not diminish the quality of the people and resources.

Employee turnover rates are among the items retained ownership prospects may consider in selecting a feedyard. FI's annual employee turnover rate is 12%, with yard maintenance and cattle handling areas being the highest. Turnover in milling, feeding and administration is low.

Whether or not a feedyard is a Beef Quality Assurance yard, and the extent of the yard's safety and employee training program should also be considered.

Safety first

A solid safety program offering consistent training and evaluation is one tool for retaining a good work force. It begins when an employee is hired, and is reinforced with specific measures geared toward the particular job.

“We define each job and the safety involved with it,” Winter says. “Employees undergo awareness training, monitored by a department supervisor. Whether it involves riding a horse or working on a doctoring crew, employees must follow set guidelines that provide for a safe environment for them and the cattle.”

Safety meetings are held monthly to analyze new equipment or techniques. Any accident is thoroughly examined.

“We determine the cause and look at how it could have been prevented,” Winter says. Employees are encouraged to discuss any situation that could potentially cause an accident. Safety awards, usually in the form of cash bonuses, are given to employees who maintain a good safety record.

Safety recordkeeping is precise, and third-party safety audits are conducted twice/year. Such organizations as the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, Nebraska Cattlemen and the Kansas Livestock Association (KLA) perform third-party safety checks for their feedlot members. Some consultants also specialize in this area.

“Safety is significantly important to the success of the pool,” says Rich McKee, KLA senior vice president. “About $2.7 million has been paid out in dividends from the pool (since 1993); 75% of those payments are based on the safety record.”

A “safety culture” is important for good employee retention, McKee says. Like other associations, KLA has helped develop drug and alcohol testing protocols at feedyards. Since many feedyard employees are Hispanic, KLA now conducts some safety seminars and other programs in Spanish and English.

About 50% of FI's employees are Hispanic, a typical ratio in the industry. Winter's credo is this: “Respect the person first. You become aware of cultural needs and diversity. Like any employee or culture, if you respect them, they'll respect you.”

Good employee relations

Get to know employee family members, where their children attend school, even special dates like birthdays if possible. California's Billikopf stresses such good communication is essential in managing employee morale and maintaining good productivity. Certain on-the-job situations can be delicate, so being closer to an employee can help solve problems.

“Out of concern for how we're perceived, we may err in saying too little when things go wrong,” he says. “Instead of saying things directly, we often hint.”

Don't ignore problems or allow them to accumulate. Effective dialog can help reduce employee-supervisor stress.

“Conversation entails as much listening as talking,” Billikopf adds. “While effective two-way exchanges sometimes happen naturally, they generally need to be carefully planned. Discussing challenging issues can place you outside your comfort zone, but the rewards are immediate satisfaction and improved long-term relationships.”

One way to ease an employee's mind is to make assignments ahead of time. Ask them to bring answers to a few challenging questions to a set meeting.

“For instance, you can ask them to make a list of positive contributions they bring to the (ranch or feedyard) enterprise, and areas they feel they need to improve,” he says.

Don't rub it in if an employee admits a fault. Ask about steps he or she will take to meet the challenge, and how you can help.

Asking employees about your own performance can be an important part of the dialog, as well. But rather than ask if you're a good supervisor, ask: “What can I do differently, as your supervisor, to help you better help me?” Billikopf says.

That way the employee isn't asked to speak against you; he's enlisted to make the enterprise more effective.

But be sure to give the employee plenty of time to prepare his answer. When he gives his answer, don't interrupt. Any misconceptions can be cleared up later. Ask questions and try to better understand his perspective, he says.

“A third-party facilitator can be effectively used in this approach,” he says. “Either way, the potential exists for a healthy amount of self disclosure to take place, and each person can stretch to consider his blind spots.”

If possible, match employees with jobs best suited for them.

“Above all, we try to provide employees with a work atmosphere that allows them to feel gratified at some level,” Winter says. “We want our work environment to make an employee feel good about coming to work.”

Larry Stalcup is a freelance writer based in Amarillo, TX.