Staff embrace management change

By Stephen Cooke

Employee Alex Keane

A restructured management approach that has put more onus on staff is paying dividends for farm managers Isaac and Michelle Johnstone.

The Johnstones, who were named Employer of the Year at the WestVic Dairy Great South West Dairy Awards this year, have seven full-time staff who now report directly to them.

When their former second-in-charge accepted a manager’s role on another farm 12 months ago, the Johnstones made the decision to remove that second layer of management.

Each staff member now has an area of responsibility. Management has been divided into: pastures, young stock, farm maintenance (fencing), machinery, herd (animal husbandry) and inventory. These areas also overlap to a degree. For example, responsibilities for pasture will overlap with the area of managing young stock, and vice versa.

Since the removal of the 2IC role, the Johnstones have noticed a change in employee attitude, to the benefit of the farm.

“It gets them thinking more about the business and challenges them,” Mr Johnstone said.

“Our employees can now make decisions and apply them. Our milker said we could milk five cows an hour less but milking would be finished 25 minutes faster. He made that change without coming to us.

“Farming is a technical business and with farms and herds getting bigger, we want them to be right across it.”

Employees report to the Johnstones directly, advocating suggested management changes, as well as providing an update at a regular farm meeting.

“If it’s a good idea and will improve the business, we’ll make the change,” Mr Johnstone said.

“Sometimes the idea isn’t made because it would have an influence on another area of the farm, but we discuss this and it helps provide a broader overview of the business.”

They plan to give each employee two years in each role before reassessing.

Judges at the South West Dairy Awards said the Johnstones had created an “efficient and well-oiled team”.

Not only have they “created a good system of communication, allowing input from the employees”, but they “have a strong emphasis on ensuring compliance and safety in their farm business”.

The team milks 1000 cattle and runs 300 replacement heifers a year on the 600 ha farm, which the Johnstones have managed for 12 years.

Mr Johnstone, originally from a beef farm, first managed a farm in Wangoon at the age of 21, managing four staff who were all older than him. Ann and the late Graeme Adams offered him the chance to manage the 750-cow farm.

“I’ve always been a good people person and communication is the key,” Mr Johnstone said.

“If you keep communicating, you’ll get through life a lot better.”

The Johnstones emphasise to their employees that there’s never a dumb question and ensure ongoing education opportunities. This includes courses through RIST (Rural Industries Skill Training) in Warrnambool and the Dairy Australia Target 10 programs. They also conduct on-farm training days, utilising the knowledge of a local vet or consultant.

Wages are based on the People in Dairy website with employees paid a set hourly rate, with four weeks annual paid leave, sick days and an incentive scheme. Each employee receives a share of $40 for every day of quality milk, which can add up to $3000 each for the year.

“We benchmark ourselves against industry and think we’ve got it right. We have the balance right and guys get time off when quiet,” Mr Johnstone said.

“We have people ring all the time, wanting to work, and currently have two brothers, and their father working with us.”

The Johnstones said it was critical to be aware of industry changes in such a dynamic industry.

“We’re aware of employment changes, including tax changes, and it’s important to maintain a good rapport with service providers, particularly grain and hay suppliers. If there’s a grain hike coming, it has a big impact on the bottom line so it’s crucial to know.”

Employee Alex Keane