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November 20, 2009

Photo by NJAA member Cole GardinerHuman Resource Management
Tips for Ranches

"Can you think of a business or sports team that is succeeding while its people are failing?" That was the question Bob Milligan, an emeritus professor from Cornell University, posed to attendees during the keynote address kicking off the 6th Annual HOLT CAT Symposium on Excellence in Ranch Management Oct. 29-30 on the Texas A&M University-Kingsville campus.

With the focus of this year's conference on human resource management on ranches, Milligan went on to say, "The over-arching goal of any business should be to make people a management strength." This goal applies whether you are a family business or a ranch or feedlot with several employees.

Milligan, who today works as a human resources consultant in the livestock industry, emphasized that the good news is that anyone can become a good human resource manager.

"It's about the choices you make," he said.

Milligan offered three reminders for human resource management, saying, "They are so simple, yet so powerful." His reminders included:

1. Genuinely care about your employees as people.

2. Make clear your trust of employees. Of this, he emphasized fairness, saying, "Employees may not like all of your decisions, but if they know you are fair, they'll trust it."

3. Praise hard-earned progress. "Show appreciation; a simple thank-you may be remembered for years," Milligan stated.

Training important, too

Also speaking at the event was Erik Jacobsen, general manager of Deseret Cattle & Citrus's Florida operations. Jacobsen emphasized that finding good employees requires planning — both before and after someone is hired.

"Anticipate your needs before you hire," Jacobsen said. Of this, he suggests periodically reviewing ranch leadership and evaluating if the right organizational structure is in place to be training the leaders who will take over the decision-making for the ranch in the future.

Jacobsen says that no matter what size the ranch, it is important to have what he calls a "pipeline." He describes this as a system where people are always being trained to move up into positions that require more responsibility and leadership. As an example, he says, "We've found it is hard to find and hire a cattle foreman off the street. So we've tried to have a pipeline where we've got someone in training to be a cattle foreman at all times."

Jacobsen adds that this extra focus on training can be the key to retaining long-term employees. "Research shows that most businesses take no steps at all to ensure that new employees are integrated into the company's culture; instead, it is sink or swim," he says. "But research also shows that 10%-25% of new employees leave within the first year."

Thus, Jacobsen says that with a focus on training employees and creating opportunities for them to move up within the business, a better retention ratio may be achieved.
Of all the human resource tips offered, Milligan concluded, "Often these things seem obvious, but they are overlooked. Remember that employees are human beings, not just human resources."

A step-by-step manual providing more insight into hiring, motivating and retaining productive ranch employees is available through the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management for a nominal fee. The workbook was developed with input from Milligan and Bernie Erven, two emeritus professors who have devoted their careers to human resource management issues in agricultural operations. Contact Barry Dunn at 361-593-5401 or e-mail to request a copy.