After talking to both employees and management, Dr. Coleman says his next step is to determine if the operation has a healthy or unhealthy culture. Where relationships are simply not working, employee engagement must start with team building or more basic management training.

Additional training or reviewing procedures can help realign a farm with good employee-employer relationships and is important at all levels of on-farm management.

“I see employees that would like to do a good job, but are not given the training to be successful,” Dr. Coleman says. “I’m of the opinion that if you’ll care for the people, then they’ll care for the animals."

Cultural improvements aren’t just for large operations. He says training can help small operations work smarter, not just harder.

“World class farms have to be smart and healthy. Smart means they are doing the right protocols and things for their animals,” Dr. Coleman says. “Healthy speaks for the relationships and functional teams. Let’s not devote all our resources to being smart.”

Working healthy and smart is critically important with 100 employees in the farrow-to-finish hog operation at Thomas Livestock in Broken Bow, NE. For more than seven years, Dr. Coleman has worked with Tim Friedel, the production manager, to help ensure employees are engaged with the operation’s values and culture.

“I believe that to get the best productivity out of people, people have to enjoy what they are doing,” Friedel says. “It’s our job as supervisors to develop these people to first give them the opportunity to be successful and happy at work. If they are enjoying what they do, that will create a lot of pride. If you develop a loyalty to the supervisor, general manager and owner, you have a much greater chance of being successful.”

His career is an example of having worked in swine confinement operations for 37 years and rising in the ranks. As he’s grown as a manager, Dr. Coleman gave him advice and feedback. The outside perspective, combined with appreciation from supervisors, helped Friedel grow in his career.

“You can see very easily the people that take a lot of pride in what they do,” Friedel says. “Those that don’t, may overlook a problem or a sick animal. Whereas if you have people that take a lot of pride in what they do, they will not take a short cut because they understand that reflects on their success.”

Focusing on engaged employees can allow managers and supervisors to relax the reins more, Friedel notes. For example, Thomas Livestock’s night shift is unsupervised. However, the employees still feel accountable for the animals because of trust and loyalty.

Reducing turnover is another benefit that Clare Schilling, an owner at CD Bell in New Athens, IL, found in her operation.

“I’ve seen a huge difference,” says Schilling, who manages the livestock side of the hog and grain farm. “We had a pretty high turnover rate, which is typical for the livestock industry. Now, I’ve had maybe one or two new employees turn over. All of my employees have been with us two years plus. Realizing what employee engagement is, is what allows you to fix it. I just assumed everyone was there because they wanted to work, that’s not always the case.”

With 16 full-time employees on the hog operation alone, she focused on devoting time to employees that would be a good fit for the business and improving morale. Boosting attitudes is often as simple as having a pizza lunch, which Schilling does once a month.

“From a manager’s standpoint, I know if I don’t have the best attitude about the job, they aren’t going to either,” she says. “I try to be optimistic and be careful with how I provide constructive criticism. I try to make it a fun environment, make it somewhere they want to come.

Not all jobs on a livestock operation are fun, so Shilling tries to work alongside employees to set an example. Even if she can’t make time to complete the entire task, it helps contribute to a team atmosphere. Ideas on improving morale also come from her veterinarian, who can offer up examples from other operations.

“They are more willing to go the extra step,” she says. “After we’re done processing, our equipment and tools are washed and disinfected properly; taking that extra minute to go through and do it from start to finish according to protocol. Also, the whole process of processing baby pigs is done more carefully. It is an extremely important procedure, and I feel the team does it a lot better if they are more engaged. Four years ago maybe that wouldn’t have happened.”