Two operations may have the same number of sows, the same relative health status, comparable facilities and the same number of employees, yet their production outputs can be vastly different. The variance is often related to the people taking care of the pigs and their attention to detail.

How are some managers able to retain a high-quality workforce and motivate them to continue to improve while other managers struggle to do so?

Larry Coleman, veterinarian for the Prairie Dog Hill Farm and Pigeon Ranch operations located in central Nebraska, feels the reasons are so simple they’re often overlooked.

“It all begins and ends with an engaged employee workforce, across the entire team,” says Coleman. “Their hearts, their heads and their hands need to be in the game.”

His philosophy is creating superior results for the two, 6,000-sow operations. Pigeon Ranch ranked first and Prairie Dog Hill Farm ranked third in the Swine Management Services, LLC (SMS) database for the first quarter of 2012. In fact, the Pigeon Ranch crew has pushed production to 32 pigs/mated female/year.

“Both farms have very cohesive teams and a common goal,” says Ron Ketchem, co-owner of SMS in Fremont, NE. “The attention to detail is exceptional.”

The high rankings are no small accomplishment, since the SMS Farm Benchmarking database includes 1.3 million sows from more than 780 farms in North America. Ketchem believes Pigeon Ranch’s success can be attributed to a strong commitment to excellence from all team members.

“Ultimately, it starts with a mindset that no matter where you’re from, you’re a valuable person. If you’re involved in this operation, you are considered irreplaceable. Management will do everything in its power to help you be successful at whatever task you’ve been asked to do,” Coleman relates.

“It’s our desire that when employees join our operation, they’re going to be part of a world-class team and we have every expectation that they are going to be a positive addition to that crew. Our job as management is to make sure an employee’s tenure on the team is very successful,” he adds.

Fond of sports analogies, Coleman also sees the benefits of encouraging friendly competition between the sow herds’ staffs.

“When you’re a winning team, you’re very interested in your personal statistics,” he points out. “For example, if you’re leading the NBA in points or rebounds, you’re going to be in tune to your nearest competitors’ statistics as well as your own. On the other hand, if you’re the worst free-throw shooter in the league, you probably never look at your stats.”

Employees at the two sow farms compile their records every week. The production numbers are circulated so everyone on both farms knows how the other farm performed the previous week.

“Part of being engaged and concerned about your own ‘records’ or performance is being part of a world-class team,” he says. “Once you’re part of that world-class team, it is second nature to want to know what other teams or other good farms are doing.”

When “replacement players” are needed, farms do their own hiring; employees provide referrals.

“When you have low employee turnover, the only people allowed to join are those whom the employees want to join,” Coleman explains. “The team knows it only gets so many players, and if they’re competing for the championship or, in our case, world-class performance, they don’t want a team member who’s not going to pull his or her own weight.

“Farms achieving world-class production are the easiest in the world to run because the employees are running them. They’re fully engaged and want to see the farm succeed,” he adds.

Setting an Example

While every effort is made to hire people who have the right talents, Coleman says it’s management’s job to make sure people are engaged.

“It starts with a philosophy of caring for and respecting the people who are working with the pigs. That attitude is modeled at the top and works its way down,” he says.

The chain can be broken at any point, but Coleman says if it’s not evident at the top, then long term, the whole process will be unsuccessful.

“People have to know they’re valued for their contributions and that they are given responsible roles. They need to know that upper management feels they’re capable of achieving good results and that they’re given the freedom to achieve those results,” he continues.

The organization is based on a “low-fear, high-trust” mentality. People are willing to try new things because they’re not afraid of “getting into trouble” for their efforts.

The farms have very few standard operating procedures, but employees do have general guidelines. “We want the people working with the pigs to use their heads to solve the problems they face. We hold them responsible for the results but not the procedures,” Coleman explains.

“While this approach doesn’t necessarily apply to safety, animal welfare or biosecurity, it certainly applies to animal husbandry. If they have a better way of doing something, we welcome their input,” he says.

Do Unto Others

Commonly known as the Golden Rule — Do unto others as you would have them do to you (Luke 6:31, New International Version) — serves as a foundation for success in life and business, Coleman says.

He feels the rule is so simple and basic that it’s often overlooked, but not at Pigeon Ranch or Prairie Dog Hill Farm. An inherent respect for one another is the very foundation of the organization’s culture.

Coleman offers five simple things a manager can do to build effective communication with a staff to achieve superior production results:

• Be the first person at work.

• When employees come in, smile at them.

• Greet your employees by name.

• Get to know them as individuals; develop a relationship.

• Throughout the day, treat your employees just as you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed.

Orlando Gil, president of TCTS Global, agrees. Smile and greet people by name — it can make all the

Gil’s consulting firm helps companies in agriculture and food-related industries bridgethe recruiting, training and communication gaps with Latino and global talent. He says employees want these things:

• Respect and recognition for a job well done;

• To be challenged to be and do their best; and

• Personal and on-the-job safety.

“Your employees will respond positively to you when you help them succeed at work, at home and as individuals,” he assures. “And remember, disrespect is perceived as disrespect in any part of the world, just as a smile means the same thing in any language.”

The Best Operations

Gil says the most successful companies are committed to helping employees grow as individuals and have a systematic approach to employee development.

“Having specific, clear goals from the start is important for companies and employees. Consider why you are hiring an individual, how he or she will fit into your organization and how you can help that individual develop to incrementally add value to the operation,” he explains.

Companies that share and live their vision through their mission are more likely to be successful in the long run. They engage employees through training to produce safe food and promote animal well-being.

“As a leader, you need to set the example. Don’t talk about recognition — recognize; don’t talk about respecting differences — respect them; don’t talk about values and beliefs — practice them,” he adds. “Only then will your organization follow you.”

JoAnn Alumbaugh is a freelance writer from Linden, IA.