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Rising wages challenge dairy producers

dairy workers getting cows ready for milking
HIGHER COSTS: Dairy farm wages in Wisconsin have increased by 4.3% per year since 2012, while wages in manufacturing grew on average by 1.5% per year.
Dairy Team: Hired labor is supporting about two-thirds of the milk production in Wisconsin.

By Simon Jetté-Nantel, Trisha Wagner and Jennifer Blazek

Dairy is a labor-intensive enterprise. In recent years, labor supply and cost have brought challenges to farm expansion and the growth of the dairy sector in Wisconsin. Even farms with herds of less than 100 cows, which rely primarily on family labor, tend to hire some part-time help.

Hired labor typically represents more than 50% of the labor supply on farms milking 200 to 500 cows, and above 90% on farms milking more than 1,000 cows. As a result, hired labor is supporting about two-thirds of the milk production in Wisconsin.

Higher wages
In Wisconsin, dairy farm wages have increased at a faster pace than in most economic sectors. The graph below shows that dairy farm wages in Wisconsin have increased by 4.3% per year since 2012, while wages in manufacturing grew on average by 1.5% per year. The increasing cost of labor is compounding the impact of lower milk prices, and it adds pressure on farmers’ human resource management skills.

Developing a motivated and loyal work force is the ultimate dream for most employers. So, understanding motivation is required.

Motivation can come from various sources that can be categorized in two broad categories, internal or external motivators. External factors include money, bonuses, and social and peer pressure. But there is something that those factors cannot provide. Just ask yourself why you own or operate a farm. Chances are, there is more to it than just earning a living. There is a certain internal passion. For many, farming is what makes them feel worthy. It is part of their social identity and status. It makes them feel like rightful members of their communities. Chances are you identify yourself as a farmer and are proud of it. When you find an occupation that can give you all that and put bread and butter on your table, you tend to care for it and keep it.

The challenge to pass this motivation to employees starts by articulating what motivates you, and then communicating it to your employees. Then, you must also try to understand what motivates them. What are their goals and values? How well do their goals and values mesh with the values and mission of your business, and the work you are asking them to do?

Science shows that cultivating feelings of competence, autonomy and relatedness are key to developing motivation among employees. What does that mean in practice? In short, play to their strengths, avoid dwelling too much on their weaknesses, and offer them opportunities to learn and grow their skill set. Show them the value and impact of their work. Nothing is more demoralizing than doing chores for which you cannot see the use. Whenever possible, give them choices, whether it be about the timing of chores or the specifics of how to carry them. And try to make them feel welcomed and part of your team.

In addition to programs and workshops offered by Extension and agricultural associations, a number of links to resources can be found on our website,

Jetté-Nantel is an Extension farm management specialist at the UW Center for Dairy Profitability. Wagner is the Jackson County, Wis., Extension agriculture agent. Blazek is the Dane County, Wis., Extension dairy and livestock agent. This column is provided by the University of Wisconsin Extension Dairy Team.

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