Farm thrives with happy staff

Shiona and Caleb Berry have brought experience, learning from mistakes, routine and technology into managing their large team of employees.

Recognising working on a dairy farm is about shift work, makes it easier to accommodate your own and employees’ family and community life when rostering roles and responsibilities.

That’s the message from Shiona Berry, who runs Glen Alvie Dairies with husband, Caleb, at Glen Alvie in West Gippsland.

They milk 750 to 800 high-producing cows in a split-calving herd off 250 hectares, with an additional 60ha of shelter belts and calf raising area, a 162ha out-block and 399ha of leased country.

Pastures are perennial rye-grass and clover, and they grow maize. Both pasture and maize are harvested and chopped for pit silage. Pasture is also harvested as hay in round bales. Silage is fed on the feedpad.

Summer pastures are over-sown with chicory for strip grazing.

The only bought-in feed is grain, fed in the bail.

Shiona Berry recognises respect is a big part of managing employees on the farm.

The couple employs six workers across milking, cow jockey, maintenance, tractor and calf rearing duties, and their daughter, Ella, as a relief milker.

One of the workers is also second-in-charge to Caleb and Shiona, helping with roster allocation and stepping in with responsibility when the couple isn’t available.

The roster is split, so workers begin in the early hours of the morning, bringing cows into the 50-unit rotary, and finish at lunchtime. The second shift begins at 9am and finishes at 5pm after afternoon milking.

Shiona said having two shifts rather than expecting people to work in split shifts meant if overtime is needed, their employees are willing to stay for an extra hour. But more importantly it is about looking after their family life.

“The key to our rosters is family life for everyone,” she said.

“People are home having dinner with their families, and available for after school and community activities, like sport.”

When the high-producing herd grew from 400 to 800 cows, Shiona and Caleb Berry realised they had to employ people and went about developing systems to help them.

Shiona and Caleb are strong on values in the workplace that reflect home life. It pays off, with some employees on staff for nearly a decade.

“Our values include having a family life apart from work, and getting the job done at work — whether it’s milking, cleaning the shed and staff room, feeding the cows. It’s respecting ourselves and everyone else,” she said.

“Dairy is shift work, so respect means recognising that.”

Caleb and Shiona studied agriculture at Dookie College, majoring in dairy. They became sharefarmers with a family farm, before purchasing their first farm. They have since studied business management and business governance courses.

Joel Jennings and Gary Chisolm are general farm workers employed by Caleb and Shiona Berry. Rosters are set one week in advance for everyone involved in the farm business.

In 2006, Caleb and Shiona started employing apprentices.

Since growing from milking 400 to 800 cows, in about 2008, they began employing workers for specific roles. Now they have a diverse workforce, that includes Australian and Filipino workers.

They also focus on minimising risk in the workplace.

Employees appreciate the recognition that dairy is a shift work industry. Shannon Myers has been employed by Shiona and Caleb Berry for nine years as a tractor driver and is a relief milker on the day shift.

Asset investment includes many laneways throughout the farm, side-by-side vehicles instead of motorbikes, a dedicated calf shed and calf raising paddocks, electric fencing for strip grazing, and a farm plan with all paddocks numbered.

They use a calf trailer, a ‘calfeteria’, and are onto using their second milk trailer to transport milk from the dairy to the calf shed.

The 50-unit rotary includes automatic cups off, automatic drafting, rubber matting on the floor, and machinery is automated as much as possible, using GPS coordinates to reduce risk.

“Our motto is, if you’re uncomfortable, don’t do it,” Shiona said.

“We have enough jobs that need to be done every day, that no-one needs to do a job they’re not comfortable with.”

It’s an attitude that especially applies to driving tractors or side-by-sides in their steep country.

“Caleb will teach people to drive in the hills, but if someone isn’t comfortable doing it, we don’t make them drive tractors in our paddocks,” Shiona said.

“It’s too dangerous for people to do jobs they’re uncomfortable doing.”

Every new employee goes through a formal induction process, then works alongside another team member for a fortnight.

“On the first day, I go through the induction process with them, we drive around the farm with a map, and I show them where everything is,” she said.

“One of the workers will do an induction for milking, and the same with the cow jockey role.

“Then the new employee will double up for a fortnight or a few weeks, to build their familiarity with our processes. They buddy up with different team members.

“The buddy is responsible for saying when the new employee is competent in their role.”

There is a weekly team meeting, where issues are raised and everyone is encouraged to input their ideas for resolution. It’s also an opportunity to remind everyone of basic safety and do briefings about, for example, fertiliser application or calving season.

Shiona sets the roster every week, and each employee receives their own roster and the name of the person they’re working with, for example, in the dairy shed, so if that person is late, they can phone them directly rather than Caleb or Shiona.

The team uses two online apps. Tanda is used to manage rosters, timesheets and leave applications. A WhatsApp group enables the entire team to communicate daily.

Twice daily, the milkers post a photo of the temperature and vat quantity on the WhatsApp noticeboard. The cleaning roster for the staff room and facilities is on the WhatsApp noticeboard. Team members can post information about cows, gates and equipment that needs maintenance, among other information.

There are also specific team meetings pre-calving, to discuss processes and procedures.

In a meeting at the end of every week, Caleb, Shiona and their second-in-command, Ben, plan the following week’s chores and roster team members against jobs.

However, there are specific roles for some employees.

Stephen Fitzgerald is employed for maintenance and tractor work. Jimmy Palermo is in charge of the milking shed. Shannon Myers is responsible for collecting silage and distributing it on the feedpad, as well as tractor work.

The remaining workers alternate between milking, cow jockey, calf raising and general farm duties.

Caleb and Shiona also encourage skills development, and help their employees identify courses to up-skill — calf rearing, animal husbandry, AI, Cups On Cups Off — and encourage them to attend discussion groups.

Caleb and Shiona Berry purchased side-by-sides to reduce risk for themselves and their farm employees. Joel Jennings and Gary Chisolm use one of the side-by-sides for carrying fencing equipment.

Caleb and Shiona have also hosted VCAL students on their farm.

“I think a lot of our team management skills is about making mistakes in the past, learning from them and evaluating what we could do better,” Shiona said.

“We realise we’ve invested in building an asset, but Caleb and I can’t run this on our own, so we have to respect the people who work for us.”

Shannon Myers has worked for Caleb and Shiona Berry for nine years, predominantly working with tractors, including to deliver silage to the feedpad.