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Communication is critical in managing farm and ranch labor for productive operation

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The challenges of managing farm operations can be mitigated by taking a more formal, corporate -type approach according to John Hewlett, University of Wyoming Extension farm and ranch specialist. 

Hewlett cites the Farm Labor survey, noting there are 31,000 agriculture workers in the Mountain Region encompassing Wyoming. 

The Census of Agriculture, which is conducted every five years, was last completed in 2012. Though the 2017 census is the most recent, the data is yet to be sorted. 

The 2012 survey concluded there were 3,100 farms in Wyoming with over 10,000 workers employed by these farms. 

Roles of the employer 

“We need to step back and figure out what we are trying to accomplish with our business as a whole,” says Hewlett. “We need to sit down and set goals before we ever go about trying to manage people.” 

He notes managers should figure out exactly where labor fits into their business, whether it be relatives on a family operation or outside employees. 

“There are various ways we can manage people to meet our goals,” Hewlett says. “Some people take a more philosophical approach to look at this, and the book we recommend, Ag Help Wanted: A Guide to Managing Ag Labor does take a philosophical approach to labor management.”

Hewlett explains it is also the duty of the employer to understand the regulations associated with the type of work they require of their laborers. 

“It is our job as employers to ensure we are within the law when it comes to labor and are providing the proper workmen’s compensation in accordance with labor laws,” says Hewlett. 

Organizational planning

“Organizational planning takes the broadness of the roles of an employer and gives some direction to it,” says Hewlett. “Having direction helps people accomplish the goals we set.” 

“As we plan on how we are going to accomplish tasks and keep or acquire labor, we have to figure out how we are going to keep those people from quickly burning out,” says Hewlett. “We don’t want to have to replace the same position over and over again.” 

Hewlett notes employers need to think broadly about what people need to accomplish to help the business become successful and think about how we can effectively use labor to put this in action. 

“We have to determine how exactly we use labor to put these things into action,” says Hewlett. 

He also notes conflict between managers often only hurts the laborer. Something as simple as a predetermined job description can alleviate such issues. 

“At the very beginning of this process, employers need to set out specific job descriptions with all those involved in the hiring process,” says Hewlett. “This description should accurately describe what type of work is expected of the position and can clear up any confusion as well as establish a basis of understanding to ask questions.” 

“It is crucial that everyone involved in the hiring process or supervising employees be on the same page,” Hewlett stresses. 


Hewlett explains in situations where the operation is staffed by family members, deciding who does what job can be much more complicated. 

“It might be even more important to have a structured system of staffing in family operations,” Hewlett notes. “A systematic approach to taking in people’s skills, interests and status will minimize issues.” 

Hewlett explains no matter if the operation employees strictly family members, outside help or a mix of both, there must be a systematic approach to staffing. 

“This goes back to the need for a job description,” says Hewlett. “There needs to be an established approach and everyone involved in hiring or firing needs to be on the same page.” 

He continues, “Treating employees differently will invite the question of discriminatory practices, which can have severe legal implications.” 

“How we treat people will follow us, and if we don’t respect people, no one will want to work for us,” he says.

Hewlett notes in any type of operation, it’s critical to consider what the employee will gain from the position in addition to wages. 

“It needs to be very clear if the employee has the possibility of earning a higher wage,” Hewlett explains.   

“We also need to figure out how we orient new employees,” Hewlett says. “This can be really casual or formal, but there needs to be a process.” 

He explains an established process for orienting new employees will help determine the capabilities and interests of new employees.

Potential issues

“Employers need to look at their entire process and determine the best way to give feedback to employees,” Hewlett notes. “Whether it be positive or negative, feedback is absolutely necessary.”

He explains people need to know if what they’re doing is right or wrong, and many employers fall into the habit of only discussing one or the other. 

“There needs to be a structured way to provide feedback, whether it be a written letter or a sit-down conversation,” he notes. 

“It’s critical to have an annual performance evaluation to take stock of where we’ve gone in the past year and where we want to be,” he says. “Discuss this with the employee and have a plan for improving their performance to fit the goals of the operation.”

Hewlett notes a good strategy is to compile an employee handbook laying out conflict management, appeals processes and other established protocols. 

“At the end of the day, this all comes down to interpersonal communication skills,” he stresses. “If we can’t communicate properly with our employees and partners, nothing will get done.”

Hewlett was a featured speaker at the annual Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days held in Riverton each February. 

Callie Hanson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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