Hog Barn Managers: ‘The Glue That Holds the Vision to Reality’

They’re in high demand but must possess the right skills, work ethic and personality to succeed.

by Kate Ayers

The Canadian swine sector’s production level is projected to increase by 2.3 per cent per year in the next decade, a Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) fact sheet says.

To ensure this growth, the industry needs the right people to get the work done. And barn managers with proficient skills and qualifications can lead the industry to new heights.


    National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff, Des Moines, Iowa photo

“Managers ensure that the strategic direction and the overarching vision and goals of the farm are aligned with daily operations, that the farm is forever forward looking when making everyday management decisions,” says Heather Watson, the executive director of Farm Management Canada (FMC) in Ottawa.


Barn managers work “towards a plan that will ensure the sustainable growth of the farm and the well-being of its people,” Watson says. “Managers are essential to every farm as the glue that holds the vision to reality.”


FMC is a national organization that provides the resources necessary to enable Canadian farmers to make sound management decisions, its website says.


In addition to needing the expertise to care for pigs, operate heavy machinery and maintain facilities and equipment, managers must understand finances, communicate effectively and manage staff.


Indeed, hog barn managers have many responsibilities, and applicants should be well qualified for the job. So, this month, Better Pork speaks with family farm owner-operators, management company representatives and a business development specialist to learn about the skills and qualities necessary for successful barn managers. These industry professionals also highlight the benefits and challenges of this position and job opportunities in the sector.


Becoming a barn manager

Hog barn managers learn through formal training, on-the-job training and experience, says “Farm manager – swine production,” a CAHRC web page. So, some farm owners require their managers to have a bachelor’s degree in agriculture or a related field, while other owners may welcome applicants with a high school diploma and credible experience, a PayScale article says.


Farm owners often seek applicants who have extensive industry experience and strong management skills, says Jennifer Wright, CAHRC’s senior human resources adviser and stakeholder engagement specialist. Recruiters also prefer applicants who have WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System) and first aid certificates, she adds.


Fortunately, many opportunities are available for individuals to learn and grow within the swine industry. For example, through a partnership between Manitoba Pork and Assiniboine Community College, instructors developed the pork production technician program, Manitoba Pork’s website says. This two-year e-learning program covers communication strategies, production record keeping, stockmanship skills and biosecurity practices.


If filling a barn manager role is not urgent, farm owners may hire entry-level staff and help them develop the skills to take on management roles in the future, says Sydney Palmer, a farm operator and president of CLS Consulting Ltd. in Lloydminster, Alta. CLS Consulting provides recruitment and immigration advice to permanent and temporary resident applicants and other Canadian visa applicants, the company’s website says.


Farm owners can use this hiring and training strategy if they’d like their hog barn managers to fit into their farms’ established operating systems.


“Some owners don’t want managers to be previously trained in a different perspective,” says Richard Smelski, a pork industry professional who has more than 35 years of experience in farming, business development and project coordination. He resides in Shakespeare, Ont.


So, before applicants submit their resumés to apply for a barn manager position, they should ensure that they meet the qualifications of the job posting and that the employer runs an operation that suits their management styles.


Skill sets and qualities

To run a successful hog operation, barn managers must effectively rank tasks, Smelski says.


Barn managers need a solid understanding of swine nutrition, reproduction, animal behaviour and biosecurity protocols, says “What makes a good pig caretaker,” an Iowa Select Farms article.


Hog barn managers
    Christina W. Kroeker Creative photo

However, the specific skill sets that a farm owner requires of his or her barn manager “depend on the system that (he or she) will be working in: farrow to finish, feeder barns or nursery barns,” says Terry Betker, president and CEO of Backswath Management Inc. “And whether the barn is independent or integrated.”


Backswath Management Inc. provides management consulting services, tools and resources for farms and agribusinesses across Canada, the company’s website says.


Hog barn managers must also be skilled at strategic planning, human resources, finances and administration, and occupational health and safety, the CAHRC article says.


Barn managers should demonstrate strong leadership by coordinating or directing activities, paying attention to details and accounting for herd performance, the article adds.


    National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff, Des Moines, Iowa photo

“A hog barn is like a factory, so the whole operational effectiveness depends on how (managers organize) workflows in those barns,” Betker says.


Barn managers should motivate their staff and create pleasant workplaces.


“It’s all about the people,” Betker says. “You have to create the right culture in the barn.”


Watson agrees.


pass the pork
    National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff, Des Moines, Iowa photo

Managers should schedule regular meetings and performance reviews, which help to keep everyone on track, she says. Managers should also encourage employees to report “issues and opportunities as they arise, (so) that employees are heard and feel like a part of the team,” Watson adds.


Hog farmers may hire workers who come from many different cultural backgrounds and who speak different languages, Betker says. For example, workers may be Filipino, Mexican or Canadian, and each person will bring unique training and experience to the operation.


“It is important that barn managers recognize that the people working (for them) have their own cultures that may impact how they work,” Betker says.


Because barn managers need a range of skill sets, people in this role must be willing to learn continually. They must stay up to date on industry developments, practices and technological advancements, and they must be quick thinkers and problem solvers, Smelski says.


Barn managers should be prepared to deal with unforeseen circumstances and be efficient, he adds.


Wright agrees.


“Barn managers provide focused attention to all aspects of production and business management for that location,” she says. “They identify and address issues that may arise and provide support to workers.”


And barn managers must communicate effectively, says Palmer.


hog farm
    National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff, Des Moines, Iowa photo

“Communication is the most important” aspect of the job, whether the manager speaks “with the owners of the farm or the staff who work under them,” he says.


“Most issues can be fixed with communication,” he says. “Good communication also leads to good managing abilities.”


Dianne Brekelmans of Netherend Acres Inc. near Thamesford, Ont., agrees that barn managers must be able to effectively communicate with workers and share knowledge. Brekelmans, along with her husband Francis and son Calvin, owns and runs a 5,000-sow farrowing operation.


The Brekelmans have 16 employees, including a breeding manager who oversees the gestation and breeding section of the farm, and a farrowing supervisor who manages the daily activities of the farrowing room. The family hosts seminars on and off the farm to promote skills development.


The family wants their barn team to contribute to production, to identify gaps in understanding throughout the process and to provide solutions.


“You have to work with your employees, not above them,” says Calvin Brekelmans.


While effective communication is key between managers and workers, hog barn managers and farm owners must also have solid working relationships and aligned production targets, Watson says.


“Employers must set clear expectations when it comes to performance goals and formalities around process, authorities and work habits in general, so that both employers and employees know what is expected and have a base against which to measure goal achievement,” she says.


Indeed, hiring the right people is essential to ensure farm productivity, to optimize herd productivity, and to minimize turnover, labour costs and employee dissatisfaction, says “Swine human resources: managing employees,” a Pork Information Gateway article.


“Farms that have good performance achieve it because of their people,” the article says. “Pigs do not achieve excellence; people achieve excellence through their pigs.”


Worker retention

One of the biggest human resource challenges is retention, Palmer says. And retaining the barn manager is particularly important because the role is central to the success of the operation.


Betker agrees.


“If someone is managing a barn and isn’t happy, she could get a job at another barn the next day, especially if she is good at what she does,” he says.


So, to prevent the loss of the barn manager, farm owners who seek to hire one “should take their time with recruitment and hiring to look at what skills, experiences and personal characteristics will best complement the team and fulfill the current and future needs of the farm,” Watson says.


“Employers should look beyond what the candidate can do (including experience, training, credentials) to what the candidate will do (including attitude, values and beliefs, self-motivation, judgement, willingness to learn and temperament),” she says. “The latter qualities can really impact interpersonal relations and performance.”


Farm owners and barn managers who have strong working relationships are more likely to have greater job satisfaction, Betker adds.


“Employers must offer competitive wages and benefits,” Watson says. For example, “some (farm owners) have created very clever incentives to attract and retain workers, such as (offering) a brand-new truck after three years of loyal service.”


Other in-kind payments could include company pork products at no charge, cheaper housing or time off for family events, Palmer says.


Challenges and opportunities

Although hog operations employ 4 per cent of the agricultural workforce, the Canadian swine sector could have 15,400 unfilled positions by 2025.


While farmers have little control over this impending labour shortage, industry leaders can effect change in the public’s perceptions of the work that barn managers do and their working conditions.


“The industry has to present a positive image in the job marketplace,” Smelski says. “The people who are in the business are professional and they love hog production. So, the passion is there but the image is not right now.


“When you walk through a manufacturing firm or a service industry establishment, you can see that a lot of people would be happier working in a pig barn,” he adds.


“Farm owners offer recreational activities for their employees in the barn, and they are beautiful facilities.”


Betker agrees about the need to address the public perceptions of the sector.


“For students who are graduating from high school or post-secondary programs, I’m not sure ‘hog barn manager’ would be on the top of their potential jobs list,” he says.


“We need to promote the fact that we’re not talking about managing barns that existed in the ’70s and ’80s,” he says. “We’re talking about managing barns with good lighting and ventilation … and that have a high degree of focus on the environment.


“We need to present the industry as a good opportunity for work,” he says.


The industry also needs to promote its adoption of new and advanced tools, Dianne Brekelmans says.


“It’s exciting implementing the new technologies that are changing the roles and skill sets of employees we seek,” she says. “We need to continue to share what we are doing on our farms.”


While hog barn managers have many tasks to juggle and skills to master, the opportunities are endless for applicants who have open minds and a willingness to learn. BP

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