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Hiring and onboarding successful agriculture employees discussed at WSGA Winter Roundup

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Casper – On Dec. 13 during the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) Winter Roundup, CEO and President of the Padlock Ranch in Sheridan Trey Patterson and Saratoga’s TA Ranch Manager James Sewell discussed key points when hiring and onboarding applicants for agriculture positions.   

The pair’s presentation during the Progressive Rancher’s Forum, titled “Hiring Employees: How to Conduct a Good Interview and Successful Onboarding” touched on many topics relevant to ranches and other ag businesses searching for good help. 

Pre-interview tips

It’s important for ranches to remember the operation is always growing, learning and trying to get better, Patterson mentioned. Sometimes the best lessons are learned by making mistakes, the pair added.  

“A big mistake we’ve made over the years is not screening employees before we bring them into an interview,” said Patterson. “We try to spend quite a bit of time on an interview and do a good job with it, but not doing homework before has resulted in a lot of wasted time.” 

He encouraged outfits hiring to conduct a background check prior to an interview – check to see if there are any red flags and ensure the applicant meets the operation’s core competencies. 

For full-time applicants, an in-person interview is ideal, according to Sewell, but for most positions the interview process always starts with a phone call. 

“Let’s get some references, share what we’re looking for and what the salary is,” explained Patterson. 

The pair recommended employers be upfront about the salary, because in some instances, an individual may be qualified and interested in the position, but the pay is not what they were expecting.

Accurately explaining the job description to candidates is also important, mentioned Sewell. 

“There are some things applicants can be sensitive to, especially when it comes to livestock,” Sewell said, noting the use of stock dogs and time horseback are often considered dealbreakers for some potential employees. “Every operation runs differently and being clear in what the operation is looking for is key.”

He also encourages employers to check social media and observe what kind of pictures and posts potential employees are making, specifically to note if they are negatively commenting about their current employer or work. In this case, Sewell noted the best scenario is to move on to the next applicant.  

Asking the right kind of questions and being up front in what the operation is hiring for will help eliminate wasted time.  

Day of interview 

Patterson suggested a formal interview and providing the applicant opportunities to answer open-ended questions. 

“We’re pretty relaxed in the agriculture industry in general, but there is good reason to have some sort of formality,” he shared. 

In some instances, Patterson has sat down for an interview with an applicant and started the interview by sharing what the operation does and what is important from his standpoint. Many times, he has found the applicant tailors their answers to fit the description provided.

“We’ve learned to not share our story because we need to get real answers out of the applicant, and we do that by asking open-ended questions,” he said. 

Patterson suggested asking questions about the applicant’s passions, as well as examples of workplace situations. For many operations, passions may include land stewardship, good grazing, animal handling and, but Patterson doesn’t provide this information up front, he explained. He gives the applicant the opportunity to share their story before answering questions and providing details of the job. 

“I don’t believe you can motivate people; I believe you can work with motivated people,” said Patterson.    

Operation tours

For full-time employees, the pair recommends employers consider driving the applicant around the operation. Employees with a spouse and kids will have questions and concerns about their living arrangements. Sewell shared before the tour, it is imperative to make sure living spaces are in good condition. 

Sitting in a truck can be an unconfrontational way to have a conversation about job conditions, and potentially give way to better conversation with a potential employee than an interview setting. Patterson and Sewell shared during this time employers should introduce potential hires to current employees and inquire about their thoughts. 

“I let my current employees have some input in who I hire,” Sewell said. “They don’t usually say a whole lot, but if there’s red flags, I pay attention.” 

“It’s important to be sensitive to individuals who are not just going to get the job done, but fit in within the existing confines of the team on hand,” he added.  

Retaining employees 

It can be difficult to take the time to hire and choose the right candidate, Patterson shared. The first interaction with new hires is very important, he explained. 

“Be more intentional and organized and make sure to set the new hire up for success,” Patterson said. “Give them their keys, show them where fuel pumps are, provide maps and show them where the closest grocery store is.” 

From the employer’s side, making sure the operation is in working order, including take care of vehicles, tractors and repair work on living arrangements helps to make a good first impression. More times than not, the first thing a new employee does is clean out the truck, explained Patterson. 

“Take the time to have a truck detailed,” Patterson said. “Let’s spend the money because it smells good and it looks good, even though it might have 160,000 miles on it, providing clean working conditions sends the right message.” 

In addition, employers should consider hosting weekly staff meetings and provide the opportunity for new hires to meet other employees, understand goals for the week, give expectations and answer any questions, shared Sewell. 

Checking in with new employees about the beginning of their experience is also important, Sewell said. 

“Ask how the house is, if everything is working and if their family is enjoying being at the ranch,” he said. “Spend time talking to them about the position, goals of the ranch and their understanding of their position.” 

Performance reviews 

In order to address concerns of hires within the first months, Patterson and Sewell noted it is important to conduct performance reviews and evaluations. 

“An evaluation is not, ‘Here is all of the things you did wrong or could do better,’ but instead it should be, ‘Let’s make sure we’re on the same page for the goals that we’re working on.’”

The duo recommends operations consider putting together a supervisor’s manual to help guide managers through the hiring, interview, onboarding and evaluations process. 

In addition, Patterson shared business owners and managers should explore employee surveys. Questions about job satisfaction, pay, treatment, how well employees understood the purpose and vision of the ranch, training opportunities and communication with supervisors helps to determine areas where the operation can improve. 

“The newer generation of folks won’t tolerate a lack of communication,” said Patterson. “It is important to provide positive feedback, too.”

Successful employees

The best way to get employees passionate about what they do is by making them feel like they are part of the team and part of the process, Patterson added. 

Sewell commented, “Be sure to share the ranch’s goals, conditions of employment and be upfront about what the ranch stands for. Talk about ranch culture, treat applicants fairly and consider personality types.” 

“In today’s world, it’s not about finding the right fit for us, it’s about finding the right fit for the applicant, too,” concluded Sewell. “Hire for the future, not just for today.” 

Brittany Gunn is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to  

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