The people and communication success factor

Published 15 August 15

A successful dairy farm relies on many factors, but people and communication are among the most important. This was the main message heard by around 60 farmer and managers who attended the DairyLeader Business in Practice workshop at Dolphenby Farm near Penrith at the end of June.

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Amy Jackson reports from the farm, which won the AHDB Dairy sponsored Farmers Weekly Dairy Farmer of the Year award in 2014. Joint owners Robert Craig and Steve Brandon, milk 530 cross-bred cows with four full-time staff and three relief milkers. Here are some highlights from the day. Read more about the 2015 finalists

Not dairy farmers but ‘relationship managers’

Robert Craig no longer describes himself as a dairy farmer. He calls himself a relationship manager. “I’m not the one milking and feeding the cows any more – but I need to have a great relationship with those who do and they need a good relationship with each other.”

Robert said in his talk about managing people that, as far as the farm team is concerned, he encourages the staff to get heavily involved in discussion groups and training so they can better deal with issues like grass covers and health challenges. Problems and learnings are shared in weekly meetings, and the farm businesses – Dolphenby and Cairnhead to start with, then including Steve’s farm in Staffordshire at a later date – are about to pilot a scheme where their respective managers spend a day a month on each other’s farms, taking the learnings from one and applying them to the others.

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“There is probably an increasing friendly rivalry between the teams, which is a good thing for all the businesses as long as we manage it and ensure it stays positive,” said Robert. “To keep peoples’ eyes on the ball we have a list of key targets in each farm office. Every time people come into the office, they see those targets and it reminds them what they are working towards. We discuss progress each Tuesday morning, comparing the manager’s weekly reports against targets.”

He said it’s important to tailor the job role to the personality of the person – whether it’s an employed member of the team or a family member. “We’ve all moved someone into a position they’re not suited for. Roles that involve leadership need people who are natural leaders and who enjoy that aspect of the job. Others like to be technically good at what they do but don’t want the exposure and responsibility of leadership. So rather than putting people into a role suited to just their technical experience and skills, it needs to also suit their personality and aspirations. That’s how you get the best out of everyone.”

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Robert is keen to point out that the on-farm relationships aren’t the only important ones; relationships with business partners are critical too. “We have the Craig family partners who jointly own Cairnhead Farm – that’s my wife Jackie, me and my parents. Steve has his partnership at his home farm in Hopton, Staffordshire. Then Jackie and I are also in partnership with Steve and his wife at Dolphenby.

“The joint venture with Steve has really opened my eyes to the possibilities of different structures in business relationships. I’ve realised that, when selecting a business partner, whether the farm owner or agent on a tenanted farm or a business partner, it is important to like them and understand what they want to get out of the arrangement. You also need to have the same values and outlook on life; conflict in this area can be unresolvable.”

He said communication is vital. “Steve and I talk to each other most days and see each other every week. Informal catch-ups are good but, as the farm businesses grow, it’s increasingly important to schedule in those discussions.”

Finally, there are the relationships with the external ‘professional team’ – that’s accountants, land agents, nutritionists, advisers and the banks. “We work with independent professionals who aren’t trying to sell products on the back of advice and we try to keep them informed about everything so they can give us the most accurate advice for our situation. Some people baulk over professional fees, but think about what you stand to gain or lose through the advice you get – it’s worth paying for the best.”

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