Introducing people to a new job is not a one-off process for dairy farmer Matt Bell. Anne Lee reports.

Staff induction isn’t something you do on the first morning a new staff member turns up, it’s not even something that’s completed in a day or even the first week, Canterbury dairy farmer Matt Bell says.

“Good staff induction – it’s not a task, it’s a process,” Matt says.

It starts right back at the interview stage with the first familiarisation with the farm and for people who are new to dairying it goes on for at least a month after they go on the payroll.

Matt and his wife Sam (Samantha) have been managers on the 1050-cow Align Longfield farm for the past four years, successfully running the large-scale operation and honing their people and farm business management skills.

‘Anything they want to learn we’ll teach them either ourselves, or the senior staff will train them or we’ll get them on a course.’

The effervescent Matt is well known as winner of the 2015 Young Farmer of the Year and has to be one of the dairy industry’s most positive, enthusiastic champions.

“I love this stuff; I’d do it for free. It’s what I was born to do and I have zero doubt about that,” he says.

This coming season he and Sam are taking the leap to contract milking, again at scale, with their new job a little further north, near Ashburton.

They’ll be peak milking 1750 cows through an 80-bail rotary that sports automatic cup removers, Protrack, walk-over scales, automatic drafting and a heat detection camera.

It’s a challenge and opportunity the couple are excited to get stuck into and one where they’re determined to put innovative and best practice people management skills into action.

Some of those come from what Matt took from his Kellogg Rural Leadership project he carried out last year which looked at attracting and retaining young New Zealanders to dairying.

Hours worked, rosters, pay structures and valuing the non-wage or salary parts of the package more realistically so the full value of remuneration is understood can all play a part in attracting people to the industry and then retaining them on farm, he found.

A Ministry for Primary Industry (MPI) workforce study published last year found that within three years of entering the dairy industry only a third of staff remained.

Matt with staff members from left to right Chirag Sumad, Glenn Doria and (right) Hermie Ramirez (2IC).

“That’s a sobering fact,” Matt says.

For him the process of inducting and settling new staff into the farm starts at the interview stage when prospective employees take a drive around the farm.

It gives them the initial familiarisation with how the farm is set up, the lay of the land and a first glimpse at the way the farm is run with the clear organisational set up apparent.

The next point is when the contracts are signed before the first day of work.

Matt has a separate document that becomes the start of the training programme.

It goes through key competencies asking them where they’re at and what they want to learn.

“Anything they want to learn we’ll teach them either ourselves, or the senior staff will train them or we’ll get them on a course.

“For a senior person it might be understanding how to do GST or something in the business management side of things, for someone else it might be how to load the silage wagon.”

No one is going to be expected to do something they’re not capable or competent in doing.

In terms of health and safety, some of those competencies are crucial and Matt will assess them for himself.

Riding the motorbike for instance – Matt will assess that to make sure a new staff member has the ability they say they have.

Health and safety is a priority and it’s something Matt and Sam work through with the farm owners.

“When we have someone who’s brand new to dairying- they’re really just coming along for the first few weeks.

“Their role to start with is to observe. We’ll get them putting cups on, washing down the yard and then getting the cows in and as they feel confident we’ll give them more responsibility,” Matt says.

His aim is to get everyone to a place where they’re comfortable and competent at most tasks on the farm.

“It’s that everyone can do everything kind of thing – to a point. Some people are happy to sit and become expert at a specific level or task and that’s fine.

“I really get a kick out of growing people and getting them to where they want to be – it’s what really spins my wheels,” he says.

That’s where so many people practices come together – induction, health and safety, training, attracting and retaining they can all depend on and build on each other.

Prior to the new season starting the team has another chance for familiarisation with a farm dinner.

“We’ll all get together so anyone new gets to meet the other people in the team. That way it’s a casual kind of thing where they can just talk and get to know each other a bit.

“On day one then everyone’s seen each other before and knows where everyone fits in. They’ve broken the ice and they’re not starting from scratch.”

For more senior staff the pre-season meetings are just as important and this season, with a whole new farm to go to, even Matt and Sam have to go through a level of induction, talking with the farm owners and setting up plans for the season.

By the time June 1 comes around they will have had their senior management team including a farm manager and 2IC and herd managers together at least four times.

Some of those meetings have taken place on the new farm to familiarise them all with the farm dairy and farm layout and to talk over the plan for the season so everyone is aware of what the aims are and what’s expected of them.

Like most things the more effort put in up-front the less stress when things get busy.

A good team culture and two-way communication are key to ensuring people are comfortable asking questions, providing their own input and that above all they’re happy, Matt says.

They have some new staff for the new job and will take some existing staff with them.

They haven’t had to advertise with their good reputation and involvement in the community making them well known.

One of the big take-homes from his Kellogg Rural Leadership study was the perception of long hours, little time off and poor pay.

“We’ve operated a five-on two-off roster here and we’ll do that on the next job too but we’re also going to try and do a few things differently,” Matt says.

He’s talked with Manawatu farmer Ben Allomes and his manager Nick Bailey about how they run their 700-cow farm using a range of part-time, full-time, casual and contract staff by breaking down the jobs that need doing onfarm into packages or single tasks.

Everyone is paid on an hourly rate and people can choose to add tasks or packages of jobs to their essential or core tasks with several people on the farm team coming in to work to carrying out single tasks or small packages of work. (see story Dairy Exporter, November 2017 or check it out on our NZ Farm Life website here)

“With our proximity to Ashburton next season I could see us moving to a situation where we could have 10 or 12 people actually employed with some coming in to do specific jobs.

“It’s a great way to offer work to people in the community that fits with what they want and because everyone’s paid an hourly rate it means the actual cost of running the farm isn’t going to increase.

“It would also give a lot more flexibility to your permanent staff – make it easier for them to do the things they want to do.

“It’s also exactly the kind of innovation we need in the industry to help us attract and retain staff.

“We can’t keep doing what we’ve always done in the industry because it clearly isn’t working and hasn’t been for some time.

“Those days of 29 on two-off are long gone – that’s what I started on.

“With long hours we can’t expect people to work 11 on two-off either – you’d have to get the hours per week down to 50 or below – even then that kind of roster just isn’t going to be attractive to people.”

He’s talked with his staff and they have varying preferred days off with two of his staff for instance wanting their two days off on weekdays – one to help keep childcare costs down and the other to time days off with his partner’s.

“We’ve worked out the rosters and we can have five people on farm at all times and still run the five and two roster with six permanent staff plus Matt.”

By taking on attributes of the Allomes system it would be even easier to do that, Matt says.

“We really have to do things differently – from the way we structure the jobs to how we bring people on board, how we pay them and how we show them the true worth of their whole package.

“We’ve got to attract more people onfarm and then when we get them here we have to get it right so they stay.”

Farm facts

Align Longfield

Owners: Align Farms

Managers: Matt and Samantha Bell

Cows: 1050 Friesian cross

Area: 275ha effective

Production: 1700kg MS/ha

Supplement: 600kg grain/cow 200kg DM silage/cow

Irrigation: 92% centre pivot, rest sprinklers.

Staff: four full time plus Matt

Farm dairy: 70-bail rotary