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Casper - Although there are many hundreds of services in the U.S. that facilitate foreign workers under the H-2A Alien Labor Certification process, Mountain Plains Agricultural Service of Casper is one of only a few that specialize in open-range livestock production.

Drawing from any country where there are qualified workers, Executive Director Oralia Mercado says the three main countries from which their workers come are Peru, Chile and Mexico. “We also bring in sheep shearers from New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom,” she adds.

For a worker to be qualified, he must have done the work being requested, such as herding sheep, and must provide a letter of reference showing that he does, indeed, have the experience.

Of the 1,587 workers that come into the U.S. under petitions approved for Mountain Plains Agricultural Service members, records show that 423 of them come to Wyoming. “Under the regulations, we’re known as an agent association, which acts as an agent for the employers. Our members have to join the association by application and the payment of a fee,” says Mercado. The service has 54 members in Wyoming.

“We work anywhere there’s a need for workers, and we have members in Minnesota, Alabama and Texas, as well as the western states,” she says.

“Most people that know about us have heard through word-of-mouth,” says Mercado. “Once we get one member in a state, it seems like we keep drawing in more. The workers hear of us the same way, and Mountain Plains is well known as an organization that brings workers to the U.S.”

Workers contact Mountain Plains by phone from their countries, and from there all the paperwork is done electronically. “We fax them instructions and they go to the consulate and we coordinate their visas and travel for them,” says Mercado.

Mountain Plains Agricultural Service was established in 1987 and Mercado joined the organization in 1988. “It’s changed drastically since then. When I started there were between 35 and 40 members and we were only working in sheepherding in Colorado and Wyoming.” The service was also only bringing in workers in from Mexico.

Now the association has close to 350 members from across the U.S. “We started in this office with one table, a borrowed typewriter and a borrowed filing cabinet,” she says of the building they share with the Wyoming Wool Growers Association.

“We’re not a recruitment agency,” stresses Mercado. “What we do is the legal paperwork with the U.S. Department of Labor. We submit a petition to the immigration office and then we submit an application to the Department of Labor, after which we submit it to the immigration office and coordinate with the consulates abroad to help the workers obtain visas and then we coordinate with the employer to help those workers come across the border.” Even with all the paperwork, Mercado says a worker is usually on his way to the U.S. in 90 days.

“The H-2A program is for temporary, non-immigrant workers, and the law states that they can stay in the country for less than a year. However, sheepherders are the only workers that can stay for 364 days and then be extended another year for up to three years consecutively,” says Mercado.

The Department of Labor establishes the wage rate through surveys, says Mercado. “They dictate what the wage is going to be for the specific line of work. Even though we’re criticized for the wages being paid to our livestock workers, it’s still at least 10 times more than they get in their own country for the same work, and a good number of them send the money back to their families. They can go home with $20,000 or $25,000 because they have no expenses in the U.S. because their room and board is provided.”

The workers with Mountain Plains are required to be out on the range, or at least away from ranch headquarters, more than 50 percent of their time, either living in a mobile unit or remote housing.

“We’ve never been able to find open-range livestock workers from within the U.S., and the need has increased with the energy boom,” comments Mercado, adding that the energy boom has also proved detrimental because of the increase in AWOL workers. “They find the energy industry to be a way they can get away from herding sheep on the range, and they get lost in the system and find other jobs that pay a lot more.”

Sometimes the workers get caught, but Mercado says that, for the most part, Immigration doesn’t seek them out because they’re too busy with illegal criminal immigrants. “If a worker goes AWOL and we can’t prove the worker exited the U.S., there is a fine of about $250 for each worker, but so far Immigration hasn’t been able to enforce it,” she continues.

“It used to be that we had to prove the worker went home, but there’s really no proof of that unless we’re down there holding their hand and helping them across the border because there’s never been a good system to determine when the worker really exits so there’s no real enforcement,” she says.

To keep workers from leaving, Mercado says the best way is to treat the worker well, and that many workers return to the same farm or ranch time after time. She says family men are more likely to be let into the U.S. because they have stronger ties back to their home country than a single man. “We have a lot of workers that come back year after year or stay for three years, then go home and come back for another three years.”

When addressing the challenge of a foreign language, Mercado says when she began with Mountain Plains she was surprised at how many ranchers could already speak Spanish. “And if they don’t they can usually get by with sign language or find somebody to help, and the worker learns a little English and the rancher learns a little Spanish and pretty soon they’re communicating.”

Mercado says she expects to see some legislative changes in the near future that will affect the H-2A program. “We’ve already seen three or four bills introduced to Congress that will affect the H-2A program and will definitely affect Mountain Plains. They’re trying to tailor the H-2A program for the vegetable and fruit producers, and the livestock producers are a very small part so nobody has thought about protection of those groups.”

When the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed in 1986, Mercado says then-U.S. Senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) arranged an agreement between Immigration and Congress that sheepherders could go home after three years but they didn’t have to stay for the six months that other workers had to. “That’s been in force since then as an agreement, not a law, and that’s the way the program’s been administered to this point,” she says.

“Recently we’ve heard there’s going to be a regulatory change that requires all workers to stay home for three months, and I don’t know if we can combat that and if the ranchers are interested in combating that,” says Mercado.

“We’d like to get more deeply involved in lobbying with the new immigration law that would include the H-2A program, because that has prompted me to be more politically involved in some of the issues,” she says. “We’ve always fought administrative battles on how they administer the rules, but now it’s gotten to the point where there needs to be some legislative action.”

Although those in the dairy industry have stayed on top of the subject and are working to be included in the H-2A program – a place where they have historically not been allowed because their occupation is considered permanent – Mercado says there is nobody out there protecting the sheep and cattle producers in the realm of the H-2A program.

“They need to start getting involved. We can’t fight the battles for them because we’re just the administrators of the program and we’re not the users,” she states. “If the ranchers don’t start getting politically involved they’re going to lose a lot of the program that’s in place right now.

“The dairy farmers across the country have organized and have been lobbying for several years now because they want to be included. I think the sheep and cattle producers have always been able to use the program and they’ve become complacent, thinking everything will stay the same forever, but it won’t.”

“I think as soon as we have a new administration something’s going to change, and I think sheep and cattle producers need to be ready with something,” says Mercado, who planned to bring her concerns to the late January American Sheep Industry Annual Convention in Las Vegas, Nev.

After the convention she hopes to organize a meeting of ranchers from across the West, especially sheep producers, to see if they want to do something politically as a collective group. “That’s the only way it’s going to work, and it’s got to include more than one state,” she says.

Christy Hemken is assistant and crop editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. For more information on Mountain Plains Ag Service, call 307-472-2105 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Staffing, supervising and managing agriculture workers can be rough for producers, said a University of Wyoming (UW) Extension educator.

On Nov. 8, UW’s John Hewlett presented a webinar titled, “Hiring and Keeping Agricultural Workers,” organized by the American Sheep Industry Association Let’s Grow Committee and the RightRisk Education Team.

  Hewlett offered insights into different options for managing agriculture workers.

“My goals are to help producers understand staffing approaches and how to supervise agriculture workers, as well as help producers better manage employee performance,” said Hewlett.

Farm staffing

Using the book Ag Help Wanted, compiled by six agriculture economists, including himself, Hewlett noted staffing starts with deciding who works in the business and ends with orienting new employees.

“Producers should establish a hiring process, including steps to follow the process. The steps should include clarifying job content, assessing applicants and communicating decisions to other people involved,” Hewlett said.

“When conducting an interview, employers should have a set list of questions for consistent evaluation across applicants, and each applicant should be offered the same interview experience for fairness,” Hewlett added.

After interviews, other details may need to be considered, like co-worker compatibility, how the applicant may reflect the operation and whether they could bring more to the job than expected.

He stated, the question producers should ask themselves is whether they can expect different results if they follow the same approach for hiring that resulted in poor workers.

“Inconsistency between job requirements and individual ability is a foundation for poor performance. Work performance depends on ability and motivation, and neither is sufficient without the other,” Hewlett added.

Taking into account the hiring process and work performance, effective selection approaches raise the odds of hiring more capable employees, he noted.

Selection approaches

Hewlett mentioned there are multiple approaches producers can utilize to select agricultural workers.

“It is both legal and smart to select job applicants based on ability and job attributes, like production knowledge, lifting abilities, etc. On the other hand, personal factors, like gender and race are illegal to discriminate against,” he mentioned.

In general, producers often select applicants who fit the job description well enough, but picking applicants better suited to the job may be a better approach, Hewlett noted.

“There are times when producers might not hire the best-qualified applicant because the applicant may require significant training, in which case promoting a current employee might be the better choice,” he added.

Hewlett stated the idea behind developing a hiring process or selection approach is to achieve the ability to match applicant’s skills and interests with available jobs.

“Having written job descriptions lays the foundation for recruitment, selection and management. Job descriptions should outline basic job details, like purpose, content and attributes,” he mentioned, noting employers need to be very clear on job qualifications and whether an applicant meets the requirements.

His advice is to collect applicant information in steps, so applicants who best match the selection criteria can be focused on more.

Employee supervision

Supervising workers on the operation can ensure jobs are done correctly, which is important for business success.

“Employers have to make decisions about who will supervise, determine work assignments and foster team work. Picking a qualified applicant who can be a supervisor can be very beneficial, but not everyone is cut out for the job,” he added.

According to Hewlett, supervisors are the critical link between employees and management.

“Supervisors who do well at their job should have better supervision, resulting in better work performance from employees,” Hewlett mentioned.

Producers should also consider the level of participation employees will have within in the decision making process, and should acknowledge managing supervisors is different than managing workers.


When managing employee performance, important considerations are wage and benefit levels, motivation, employee ability and performance assessments.

“Performance management covers all the different communication between the producer and employee and should include what to do, how to do it, how well it was done and future improvements,” noted Hewlett. “Most people want to do a good job, but poor performance can be traced back to negative experiences, inequity, fatigue and mixed messages.”

He said figuring out how to motivate employees is also important, so producers should be clear about what employees are expected to do, how they are doing and how they can monitor their own performance.

“Producers can enhance motivation by determining what excites and drains employees and what employee’s on-the-job experience is and then improving the experience,” Hewlett said.

Producers should also look at whether the pay and benefits could increase motivation, as well.

Hewlett noted, providing accurate feedback can help pinpoint areas for employee improvement, and it is important to have a performance appraisals.

“Structured appraisals offer producers the chance to provide meaningful feedback, which can result in increased effort and improvement in certain aspects of the job,” Hewlett stated.

“It is important for producers to manage the people side of their agricultural business for its overall success going forward,” he concluded.

Heather Loraas is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

An announcement on Nov. 20 eased the minds of many in the livestock industry after the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued a notice that truckers hauling agricultural loads and livestock will receive an additional 90 days to comply with U.S. Department of Transportation rules regarding electronic logging devices (ELD).

Livestock organizations called the announcement “very good news” and an opportunity to “continue dialogue to provide relief” for truckers in the livestock industry.

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) President Craig Uden said, “This is a sign that the administration is listening to the concerns that we have been raising.”

Lia Biando of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) commented, “We look forward to continuing this dialogue with the agency to provide relief for transporters from the restrictive hours-of-service rules, a regulatory burden that will have a severe impact on the ability of livestock haulers to continue to do business in a way that is both economically feasible and ensures the utmost consideration for animal welfare and safety.”

NCBA and many other groups have emphasized that FMSCA is “not prepared for this ELD rollout, that there needs to be more outreach from the Department of Transportation to the agricultural community and that there’s currently still major confusion on the agricultural exemption on hours-of-service known as the 150 air-mile rule.”
In a news release on Nov. 20, FMCSA released a series of seven bullets termed as “transition information” items to help truckers understand the process of transition to electronic logging devices.

“The ELD rule is going forward as planned on Dec. 18, 2017,” said FMCSA. “FMCSA has listened to important feedback from many stakeholder groups and is primarily concerned with helping ease the transition to full implementation of the ELD rule in a manner that does not impeded the flow of commerce and maintains and improves safety for operators and the public.”

Among accommodations to ease the transition and in partnership with the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA), FMCSA also noted violations during the period of Dec. 18 to April 1, 2018 will not count against a carrier’s Safety Measurement System scores.

CVSA also noted that non-ELD compliant vehicles will not be placed out of service until April 1, as well.

In issuing a 90-day waiver to the agriculture industry for compliance with the rule, FMCSA added, “We have heard concerns specific to the transportation of agricultural commodities, especially the transportation of livestock. While those concerns are specifically related to the hours-of-service requirements and not ELD, we feel it is important to take additional time to evaluate those issues.”

The 90-day period will allow FMCSA to fully evaluate recently filed exemption requests and evaluate the ag industry’s concerns with the rule.

“In the coming weeks, FMCSA will publish guidance for comment relating to the application of the agricultural commodity hours-of-service exemption,” they stated, indicating guidance will also be provided on an existing 150 air-miles hours of service exemption to provide clarity for enforcement and industry.

Additional guidance will be published to develop consistent and uniform application of the ELD and hours of service rules.

USCA Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Hilker said, “We’re confident, that upon further examination, the administration will find that livestock haulers need additional flexibility in the mandate, specifically in the restrictive hours-of-service rules.”

FMCSA commented, “Public participation in this guidance is essential to the process, so we ask for continued engagement from all impacted stakeholder groups across industries.”

Saige Albert, managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup, compiled this article from numerous press releases. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Worland – University of Extension Educators Caleb Carter, John Hewlett and Jeremiah Vardiman spoke with producers at WESTI Ag Days in Worland about issues they face in their own operations related to the transfer of business management on Feb. 19.

Collecting anonymous answers from the group, the Extension team and audience looked at how opinions differ between older and younger generations.

The Extension team asked which families had regular discussions about financial information and bank statements, which families had an outlined process for conflict resolution, what the most important technologies are in irrigation and more.

Different perspectives

“We often see that the founding generation believes they encourage family members to practice effective communication skills, but the next generation folks don’t necessarily agree,” commented Hewlett. “Just because we think it’s happening doesn’t mean those on the other side of the issue agree.”

Vardiman also reminded producers that stressful situations, such as a death in the family, can disrupt how well people communicate and how families work together to solve issues.

“The issues surrounding the transfer of the estate are one thing, but we should also be talking about the management responsibility and how to bring the next generation in to become more involved on a day-to-day or year-to-year basis,” Hewlett explained.

Individuals have their own perspectives on certain issues, while the family dynamic may not always align with those same wants and desires. The Extension team acknowledged how uncomfortable certain conversations can be.

“We may also have non-family members or more extended family who are involved and included in the business but not part of the close-knit family,” Hewlett added.

All of the interconnected relationships impact management on the operation and how business decisions are made.

“There are a lot of different connections to put together to decide who is where and what roles and responsibilities have been assumed versus those that everyone wants,” he continued.


Breaking down the issues into three different categories, the Extension team reviewed business issues, communication and production management.

Business issues relate to topics such as the formalized structure of management and how business transactions are conducted.

“Where is the checkbook at? What loans need to be paid and when?” Vardiman asked the group, inquiring how many family members would be able to answer those kinds of questions.

Communication topics included ways in which business information is shared amongst family members, while remaining sensitive to the varying perspectives across age, gender and roles within the business and family.

One of the audience members reminded the group that having a centralized location for all of the relevant paperwork and financial information is helpful. In her own experience, a family member who passed away had been the only one who knew about a particular piece of land that was still under a loan. Once he passed, no one knew there were payments that needed to be made.

“Communication at the business level happens at a different level then when we are talking one-on-one,” related Hewlett.

He also asked, “How many families support and encourage family members to improve and practice effective communication skills?”


Turning to production management, the Extension team asked the audience to consider who in their families manages specific tasks related to livestock, cropping, labor or other production activities.

“Who is personally involved in making management decisions on the operation?” Carter questioned.

Two-thirds of the older generation participating in the discussion indicated they were directly involved, while about 50 percent of the younger generation expressed they felt directly involved.

Carter then presented a series of questions about which management practices each individual preferred in the context of his or her farm or ranch.

For example, he asked, “What is the most important method for marketing calves under current conditions – the sale barn, video auctions, forward contracts or direct sales?”

The group was split almost by thirds amongst forward buying and direct sales, the sale barn and video auctions.


Carter encouraged family members to talk with each other about why they preferred certain methods, discussing which advantages and challenges they perceived for each option.

One of the audience members noted that when the older generation in a family opposes an idea, it isn’t always because they are stuck in their ways. Sometimes, she shared, they have experience that has persuaded them in a particular direction.

Carter echoed her comments saying, “We need to talk about why we do things a certain way and share what happened when we tried something that didn’t work.”

Hewlett reminded the group that going through a transition means letting go of some of the control and allowing new business managers to make mistakes. The goal, he said, is to let the incoming generation make some small mistakes instead of leaving them to make big mistakes that could jeopardize the whole business down the road.

“Transferring management responsibilities is a lot more likely to get done successfully if we plan for it,” he said.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..