June 2006 // Volume 44 // Number 3 // Research in Brief // 3RIB3

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Farm-Level Human Resource Management: An Opportunity for Extension

This article reports findings from research of dairy farm employment on large farms in Pennsylvania. Specifically, the article provides descriptions of duties and required and desired skills and training for nine distinct job titles. Based on these findings, training opportunities for managers and workers on dairy farms are suggested, focusing on communication, supervision and employee management, problem-solving, and computer skills. These are areas in which Extension educators have opportunities to improve the productivity of workers and to improve producers' human resource management skills, all of which may lead to increased farm productivity and sustainability.

Kathryn Brasier
Assistant Professor of Rural Sociology

Jeffrey Hyde
Assistant Professor of Agricultural Economics

Richard E. Stup
Senior Extension Associate

Lisa A. Holden
Associate Professor of Dairy and Animal Science

The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania


Successful dairy farm businesses must rapidly adapt to changing conditions to survive. For larger dairies, farm operators and top management must focus on achieving strategic (long-term) goals, while middle management and front-line employees achieve tactical (day-to-day) goals. Increasing complexity in the dairy business makes it imperative to have talented employees in every position to accomplish these strategic and tactical tasks.

Prior research indicates that farms that dramatically increased productivity also frequently improved their human resource management (HRM) practices (Stahl, Conlin, Seykora, & Steuernagel, 1999). Dairy producers undertaking major changes such as herd expansion or facility modernization identify human resource management (HRM) as an important part of dairy farm performance (Bewley, Palmer, & Jackson-Smith, 2001). Despite the importance of hiring competent, motivated, industrious employees, anecdotal evidence suggests that producers often do not place a high priority on HRM practices.

Because HRM is often not a part of a producer's skill set, Extension educators have the opportunity to effect change in farm management by training the producers, developing and enhancing their skill sets related to managing employees. In addition, results of a recent survey of Pennsylvania dairy farmers indicate a significant opportunity to provide training to mid-level managers and employees. The objective of this article is to identify those educational opportunities that exist in Pennsylvania and to draw conclusions relevant for a broader audience of Extension educators.

Research Methodology

In 2003, 121 Pennsylvania dairy producers completed a mail survey regarding employees currently on their farms and the producers' future employment plans. The survey instrument was constructed by a multi-disciplinary team of faculty and Extension staff and pre-tested with two dairy producers prior to distribution. The survey covered several aspects of human resource management, including job duties, compensation and benefits, qualifications and training, as well as general farm characteristics. The final survey packet included a cover letter, a 4-page booklet of general farm questions, plus separate 4-page booklets about employees in each of 9 job titles. Respondents were asked to complete only those booklets for which they had employees in the respective job titles.

The intended target population was producers with herds of 150 cows or more, because smaller farms were not likely to have many employees. Two mailing lists were used to construct the population list: (1) the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture list of dairies of 150 cows or more and (2) Dairy Business Communication's list of subscribers to the Northeast Dairy Business publication. This combination created a final mailing list of 566 farm addresses, each of which was indicated to have at least 150 cows.

The 566 farms in our sample received an initial mailing, including the survey and a cover letter, in the fall of 2003. This mailing was followed 2 weeks later with a postcard reminder. After 2 more weeks, non-respondents received a second copy of the survey.

Of the 566 surveys disseminated, seven were undeliverable, and 121 were returned with valid data, indicating a valid response rate of 21.6% (121/559). The low response rate may be attributed to several factors. The survey may have seemed prohibitively long to respondents upon first opening the envelope. Also, the survey was distributed in September, near the time of crop harvest. Of the 121 valid responses, 72 (59.5%) reported employing any workers in 2002. These farms serve as our study group.

In general, the farms we surveyed were significantly larger than the average dairy farm in Pennsylvania. It was necessary to select our sample in this fashion to target farms most likely to have employed hired farm labor. Figure 1 compares the size of the 72 farms in our sample to all Pennsylvania farms, as reported in the 2002 Census of Agriculture (USDA/NASS). Notice that some farms in our sample contain fewer than 100 animals. Thus, error in the mailing lists led to sampling from a group of smaller farms than was desired. However, if the respondent indicated that hired labor was employed, the farm remained in the sample.

Figure 1.
Distribution of Farms by Herd Size--Sample Farms Versus 2002 Census Data

Bar graph showing farms by heard size comparing sample farms and the 2002 census data.

Through pre-testing, nine distinct job titles were identified:

  • Herd manager and assistant herd manager,
  • Calf manager,
  • Crop manager,
  • Heifer manager,
  • Milking manager,
  • Milker,
  • Feeder,
  • Mechanic, and
  • Machinery operator.

Farm operators were asked to describe the duties, qualifications, supervisory responsibilities, and compensation packages for each of these positions. If farms had multiple employees in a position, operators were asked to provide compensation information for each employee.


Results are summarized in two categories of questions: responsibilities typically delegated to individuals with a given job title and the qualifications indicated as either necessary or desired for each job title. These findings indicate areas in which Extension educators could provide training for farm operators to improve the organization of work for their employees and the recruitment of effective workers.

Work Responsibilities by Job Title

Herd managers and assistant herd managers (referred to simply as "herd managers") have a very diverse set of responsibilities across the farms in our sample. These responsibilities include reproduction (and calf and heifer management), herd health, milk production records, and supervision of other employees. The supervisory functions include delegating work, training, scheduling, and evaluating other employees. By contrast, calf managers tend to have a very small set of responsibilities, focused on calf management and feeding, but are also asked to perform similar supervisory tasks.

Crop managers' responsibilities include tasks such as keeping crop production records, purchasing and managing inputs including seed, machinery, chemicals, etc. Although some of these individuals perform supervisory tasks, it is much less prevalent with crop managers than with the other management positions reviewed above. Heifer managers also rarely perform supervisory functions on dairy farms. Rather, their time is spent in developing calves and heifers such that they are able to enter the milking stream in a timely manner and to be productive herd members.

Some of the milking managers' most important tasks are related to supervision of other employees. Training, evaluating, scheduling, and delegating are all frequent responses. Also listed is making employment and termination decisions. This responsibility was not found in the results for the other job titles. The other important tasks include those related primarily to milking and reproduction.

Milkers, not surprisingly, are most often charged with milking the cows. On a small number of farms, other tasks such as heat detection, monitoring herd health, and feeding may be included. Likewise, feeders have the primary responsibility for feeding the herd. To do this, some are charged with operating machinery. The tasks associated with being a mechanic or a machinery operator are similar. The two most prevalent are operating machinery and machinery repair and maintenance.

Desired or Required Characteristics by Job Title

This section focuses on those characteristics that may provide opportunities for Extension educators to offer training to farm employees. It also offers education opportunities for farm operators to create adequate job descriptions, recruit and screen potential hires, and facilitate training of all employees.

Table 1 provides a summarized report of responses related to desired or required characteristics by job title. These show some opportunities for Extension programming targeted at middle managers and workers on Pennsylvania dairy farms. Pesticide credits, which are important for continuing certification of pesticide applicators, are often obtained at Extension programs. Thus, this group's needs may already be met through existing programming.

While artificial insemination is a widely desired or required skill, breeding cooperatives offer educational programs in that area. In some instances, this may present an important opportunity for Extension to partner with the cooperatives. Such a partnership may enhance the training in artificial insemination by also focusing on important human resource management topics such as standard operating procedures, training, or performance feedback.

Table 1.
Overview of Desired or Required Skills by Job Title

Job Title

Percentage of Producers Indicating Following Skills as Desired or Required

Pesticide Application

Artificial Insemination



Problem Solving


Herd manager







Calf manager







Crop manager







Heifer manager







Milking mgr.




























Machinery op.








The remaining characteristics present significant opportunities to develop dairy farm employees' skills. Communication skills are required or desired by a majority of the respondents for all but one of the job titles. Where they do not already exist, Extension educators should work to develop materials, workshops, or courses in developing verbal and written communication skills. These skills are at least desired on these farms and presumably will increase the ability of the employee to move up the organizational chart over time.

A similar pattern holds for problem-solving skills. This indicates employers' needs for employees to be able to operationalize their knowledge by applying it to real-world problems that arise on the job. Such skills can be developed through the use of hands-on training and case study applications in lecture settings. For example, a 1-day course in identifying common milk quality issues in dairy cows may be most effective if supplemented with problem-based segments in which attendees work through issues that arise frequently and develop potential solutions.

Supervision skills are either required or desired for many across the different job titles. This indicates a real opportunity to apply much of the programming currently targeted at upper-level managers to middle managers on these same farms. As dairy farms grow, middle managers will be expected to perform more of the functions related to training, scheduling, and evaluating others. Extension should be able to modify existing programs for these audiences.

Finally, computer skills are of significant importance across the job titles. Although the survey did not ask for any further detail, it might be assumed that specific computer skills include working with spreadsheets, word processors, dairy management software, financial management software, Web browsing, etc. This result provides evidence that computers should be increasingly integrated into training sessions for employees at all levels of the organization. Extension educators may also be encouraged to expand their offerings focusing directly on common computer applications, such as spreadsheets and word processors, because these are increasingly prevalent in managing a farm business.


The results and accompanying discussions indicate some important opportunities for Extension educators to address the needs of middle managers and employees on Pennsylvania dairy farms. With trends toward larger farms, programs targeted to improve management and specific technical tasks will be increasingly vital due to increasing numbers of middle managers and employees. For this reason, the results can easily be extended to include other types of farm businesses in other regions of the United States.

The primary conclusions from this research are that middle managers need to be trained through programs similar to those currently targeted to general managers. They must manage production, including purchasing inputs, making decisions about the production process, and storing or marketing output. They will take on supervisory functions currently held by only the general manager on many farms. Middle managers and front-line workers will increasingly be expected to display communication and problem-solving skills that they may not possess. All employees will need to be computer-proficient to be successful in farm businesses of the future. The development of these skill sets provides a great opportunity for Extension educators to create specialized educational programming for an evolving industry.


Bewley, J., Palmer, R.W., & Jackson-Smith, D.B. (2001). An overview of experiences of Wisconsin dairy farmers who modernized their operations. Journal of Dairy Science, 84: 717-729.

Stahl, T.J., Conlin, B.J., Seykora, A.J., & Steuernagel, G.R. (1999). Characteristics of Minnesota dairy farms that significantly increased milk production from 1989-1993. Journal of Dairy Science, 82: 45-51. 

USDA/NASS. Retrieved January 2005 from http://www.nass.usda.gov/Census_of_Agriculture/