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Taking Time Off! Can Dairy Farms Make It Work?

Dairying and taking care of hard working dairy cattle is 24/7.  Having said that, cattle or cows, don’t produce at their best without taking a break. Often, the cows get more consideration in this respect than dairy staffers do. Family operations quite often accept that they have exchanged those hours at a cottage, on a beach or a cruise ship for the “cows, milk and fields lifestyle” – all year round.  For some operations, along with more working cows, there are considerably more working staff to manage. It’s not a 9 to 5 job and with that there is an acceptance that vacation isn’t part of the package. Regardless of where your job falls on the dairy spectrum, there isn’t an option of shutting down the milkers to make time off for staff possible.

At one time or another during the year this scenario can arise.  Jane announces that she needs to deal with a family health issue.  Devon has never had time off, but he left a request on your desk this morning. You check your file and see that two other employees asked months ago for leave …. When you put all these requests in sequence, you see that they are focused on the same week.”  Now, what?

Shift absenteeism will happen. It’s inevitable.

Even in groups as small as five or under, employees are going to request the same vacation days. Not all will be able to go. So what’s an employer to do?  Well. The only thing you can’t do is say “No!” to everybody. This is another management area that could turn into a nightmare of down production. But it won’t stop there because it can also escalate to emotional turmoil and increased employee turnover.

Minimize Problems with Dairy Leave &Those Who Cover the Dairy While They’re Gone

Every situation is unique but once you know your work pool options and what the needs of your staff are, you are off to a good start.  Most would say summer is NOT the time to have staff taking their vacations.  However, in some situations, the availability of students during this period could make it more feasible than during school months. Of course, employment regulations will also impact decision making.

Planning Must Start at the Very Beginning

Discuss your employee vacation policy during the hiring and orientation process and provide employees with written vacation policies and procedures. Highlight the peak work periods during which vacations may be prohibited or restricted. If there are any conflicts with major religious holidays or prior commitments, discuss them at that time to prevent surprises later on.

You’re The Boss! Don’t Abuse your Position.

As the employer or manager, you should definitely clarify that you have the right to rearrange employee vacation schedules to meet dairy operation demands and changing economic conditions. But be careful not to use this to unduly restrict employees from prime vacation periods by taking them all yourself. Bosses, family members, and managers need to consider how cherry-picking time off affects the morale of the entire staff.

Get the PLAN in Place BEFORE A Crisis Arises

Set a deadline for submitting vacation requests that gives you enough time to project how employee absences might affect production schedules or harvest periods to resolve any conflicts. Depending on your specific operation, this could be anywhere from a month to a year in advance.

Managing employee vacation requests effectively means having plenty of notice so that you have time to prepare. If one of the staff members announces that they need to take a week off starting from tomorrow, then this is going to be a real headache for however handles managing employee vacation requests. This is why it is a good idea to have a policy whereby members of staff are expected to give so much notice if they want vacation time. Of course, there will be emergencies where the staff member won’t be able to give much notice and allowances should be made for this. Otherwise something like a month’s notice should be viewed as the minimum.


Prepare for the absences. If colleagues will cover vacationers’ jobs, make sure they know the specifics of their responsibilities.

  1. Make sure that job protocols are written and posted. This checklist can be a great back up, even if the individuals have already worked on the dairy.
  2. Parcel out vacationing employees’ duties among several colleagues. This action keeps one unfortunate soul from having to do the job of two.
  3. Offer premium pay, bonuses, or other employee incentives to those who agree to work during the most popular vacation periods when too many employee absences could be bad for the dairy.
  4. Allow workers in identical positions to trade off vacation dates among themselves, so long as it won’t jeopardize production schedules or quality of work.
  5. You may wish to monitor the results with an employee vacation tracking system of some kind to make sure the trading was fair to all members of the staff, and that age, gender, ethnic or religious factors are not being used to favor certain people.

What you need to do now

It’s important to consider vacations, but don’t forget sick leave and other kinds of employee absences when you’re planning your staffing levels. While there is a temptation to run on a skeleton staff in tight economic times, you may run into coverage issues when staff is low during prime vacation season, flu season or during other periods of high demand.

Develop a sound system for employee vacation tracking and planning, so you can make clear choices about needed staffing levels for any given workweek.

Make sure your employee vacation policy describes when and how vacation time may be taken, and how disputes over high-demand days will be handled

Managing employee vacation requests can be a real headache.

There is not much thanks when you are able to grant requests, but you can be sure that if you have to refuse them there will be complaints. The fact is that no matter how good you are at managing employee vacation requests there are still likely going to be times when the answer is going to be ‘no’. This is not going to make your popular, but it comes with the job.


It is a good idea to have a vacation planner in the milk house office or staff room (or both) where staff can request their holiday time. This is sure to make managing employee vacation requests a lot easier. This way they can see what holiday time has already been requested so they will be less likely to ask for times that are just not possible due to staffing. A vacation planner means that the employee has some sense of control in managing employee vacations requests and so less likely to complain when they don’t get what they want. This is a simple and efficient tool that is well worth having on your dairy.

Say “YES” Often

When managing employee vacation requests, it is a good idea to say ‘yes’ as often as you can. These holidays are not only an employee’s right but they are also needed for them to remain productive workers. If employees feel that their requests have not received enough of an effort to be granted they will become disgruntled and may even leave the job because of it. It is also possible that employees will just find a way to take the time off anyway by calling in sick.


If you do need to deny some, it’s perfectly reasonable to do it based on seniority. You can also ask people to submit their first and second choices for time away, and use seniority to bump people to their second choice if needed. And if you can, try make sure that everyone gets at least one of those weeks off if they want it; it’s going to breed resentment if some people get two weeks off while others get none.

A caution about using seniority as your system: If you have little turnover among your most senior people, this can lead to a situation where no one else can ever get the time they want, year after year. If that’s the case, you might instead use a rotation system so that newer people still have a chance to get holiday time off sometimes. Or you might do other sorts of rotations, such as putting people on a schedule that rotates time off between Thanksgiving week and the December holidays.

First come, first served, it can work, but it can end up not being fair if it means that some people turns in their holiday requests very early each year and thus reserve all the prime vacation slots months in advance and never have to share the burden of coverage with others.

Four Steps to Take, if you Must say, “No!”

  1. Tell people as soon as possible so that they can plan accordingly.
    Be apologetic about it and openly appreciative that people are willing to pitch in to make it work. That doesn’t mean that people will be thrilled about it, but seeming callous and unconcerned will make it go over worse.
  2. Do what you can to make being in the dairy during the holidays more pleasant for people — bring in food and find other ways to show appreciation that they’re there.
  3. Fatigue affects function. Everybody needs a break.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

We spend a lot of time making sure that dairy cattle are cared for and producing in optimum conditions. That should be true for staff too. Everybody produces better when they feel there is an appropriate balance between work time and off-work time. Get a better hold on dairy vacation planning and you will have a better hold on dairy staff.



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