Missouri Dairy Business Update
Fair Oaks Dairy Tour Observations
Ted Probert, MU Dairy Specialist
Earlier this fall I had the opportunity, along with several of my Extension colleagues, to travel to Indiana and tour Fair Oaks Farms, located about 75 miles southeast of Chicago. Fair Oaks is the nation’s largest agri-tourism endeavor, consisting of dairy, swine, and cropping operations. The dairy operation includes a total of 37,000 cows housed on eleven different farms. The swine operation houses 2,700 sows and produces about 75,000 pigs per year. Cropping operations provide feed for the livestock.
While Fair Oaks is a large operation, its most interesting and unique aspect is the business’s agri-tourism emphasis. Visitors to Fair Oaks can participate in two “adventures”— the “Dairy Adventure”, and the “Pig Adventure”. These “adventures” consist of narrated guided tours of the dairy and swine facilities. The narration explains all the basic husbandry and production procedures used on the farms. Visitors can see cows being milked in one of the rotary milking facilities and also get to see how cows are fed and housed. At the pig facility, a balcony with picture windows allows visitors see housing, daily caretaking, and even farrowing of sows. An extremely popular exhibit is the birthing barn where visitors can sit in arena seating and watch as cows from the dairy give birth to their calves.
Sustainability is an important emphasis at Fair Oaks. One particularly interesting project is the manure handling facilities. Manure from the swine and dairy farms enters a digester that produces methane. The methane is condensed and then used as a fuel source for the business’s fleet of vehicles. Solids from the digester are dried and used as fertilizer.
In addition to the “adventure” activities, Fair Oaks also features a café, gift shop, restaurant, a pork education center and an on-site garden. There are plenty of fun educational activities aimed at school aged children. A hotel is currently in the developmental stage. These amenities make Fair Oaks a destination that can occupy a few hours or the whole day for visitors.
Fair Oaks has gone all out to tell the story of agriculture from the producer’s perspective. It is difficult to estimate the amount of good a business like this does in furthering a positive perception of agriculture. This is particularly true considering the farm’s proximity to the Chicago metropolitan area and the large consumer audience in the nearby vicinity.
Tips on Employee Management
While on our visit to Fair Oaks, we had the opportunity to meet with owner Mike McCloskey. During our discussion with Mike, he filled us in on his vision and objectives for both the farming and tourism aspects of the operation. One of the things Mike talked about was employee relations and retainment. As I mentioned previously, the Fair Oaks operation is a large one, employing about 800 people. I found Mike’s philosophy for working with employees to be very interesting and potentially helpful to anyone who uses hired help whether in farming or otherwise.
Here is a five-point protocol Mike utilizes in employee relations:
1. Employees need to know what is expected of them. This involves a couple of things. First, clear communication on what the employee’s duties are is essential. Secondly, a clear conveyance of how to do the job is extremely important. Use of standard operating procedures and accepted protocols are good tools for helping employees understand what is expected of them. Thirdly, adequate training, both initial and ongoing, makes it possible for employees to perform optimally.
2. Employees need to know why they are doing what they are doing. The idea here is that there is a difference between a worker performing a task just because he/she has been told to, or performing the task because they understand that completing it is essential to the success of the business. An example Mike gave is the task of teat dipping. He told us that his milk crew performs this procedure because it is part of the milking protocol. He also stressed though that the staff understood and could explain if asked, that dipping is an important part of the teat sanitation process and that it eliminates mastitis pathogens on the teat, thereby reducing mastitis and improving herd health. The end result is production of a high quality product that benefits the overall business and ultimately everyone on the Fair Oaks team. Mike emphasized that employees are much more engaged when they understand the whys behind the tasks they perform on the job.
3. Employees must have the right tools to do the job. Good job performance and job satisfaction are both affected by the availability of adequate tools to do required work. Adequate job resources are those that are safe, reliable, in good repair, and can accomplish the job efficiently. This doesn’t mean equipment necessarily has to have all the “bells and whistles” but it does need to be safe and functional.
4. Employees deserve regular performance evaluations. Formal evaluations should typically be done at a minimum annually. Informal evaluations can take place on a continuous, day-to-day basis. Evaluation through constructive feedback helps your employees know what you expect of them (see point 1.). This feedback should include praise for work well done as well as constructive criticism where improvement is needed in performance or conduct. Evaluation allows the employer to recognize and reward good employees and identify and coach workers who are having problems with their work. The communication required to make the evaluation process effective ensures that you will stay in tune with the needs and concerns of your workforce and shows them you care about them.
5. Compensation is important. People that are capable of making good employees are a limited resource. Good employees are in high demand and they usually have other work options available to them. Farm employers need to understand the work conditions and compensation packages offered by competitors in the employment market. In order to attract and keep good people agricultural jobs need to offer comparable rewards.
Mike contributes adherence to these five principles with a very low turnover rate at Fair Oaks. Job satisfaction is also maintained at a high level.
If you are interested in learning more about Fair Oaks and what they are doing to promote agriculture, you can visit their website: http://fofarms.com/, their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/FOFarms, or You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/user/FairOaksFarms/videos