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Impact of employee incentives on milk quality

Jennifer Heim Published on 30 October 2015

A year ago, our somatic cell count (SCC) was running in the upper 300,000s, and we were looking to make improvements. We had previously discussed SCC and measures that could help reduce it with our part-time employees (who do much of the milking), but it seemed like they weren’t overly interested, and we weren’t making much progress.

Our employees had been milking for a little while and knew the milking routine well, so it seemed like the perfect time to get them more involved in our efforts. Our co-op offers premiums for various levels of SCC, and we felt that sharing those incentives with the people whose help we needed in order to gain them made sense. Even if we distribute all of the premiums, we know that reducing our SCC and improving our milk quality positively impacts our operation through improving the comfort and condition of our animals.

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We set out to establish a bonus program while keeping two things in mind. First, SCC is not the only component of milk quality. Second, SCC alone does not equal herd health. We want to pay incentives, but we want to make sure that the incentives are paid only when we’re actually successful. To better measure milk quality, we included PI and SPC numbers (in addition to SCC) in our milk quality goals.

Also, to ensure that we weren’t just treating every high SCC cow (increasing our costs through milk removed from the bulk tank) and to accurately target herd health, we established herd health goals for new mastitis infections. For each type of goal (milk quality and herd health), we established two bonus levels. Level one goals were somewhat easily within reach (again, we want to pay these incentives), and level two goals were a bit more challenging, but closer to the level we’d like to be at.

We gave each employee a written summary of the bonus system as well as a document describing what SCC is and detailing the things they could do to help us achieve our goals (i.e., closely and consistently following the milking protocols, and highlighting specific things like teat dip coverage).

Much to our surprise, we started meeting our goals only two months after putting the incentives in place, and for about six months afterward, average SCC dropped about 20,000 per month to less than 180,000. At that point, we plateaued, and SCC did climb again late this summer. We’re making progress in the right direction now, though, and attribute the spike in SCC numbers to a change in teat dip cups and, of course, the stress induced by heat, humidity and flies that plague us each summer.

Overall, we feel the incentives did what they were intended to. The bonus program gave us an opportunity to better emphasize the importance of milk quality and herd health, as well as our employees’ role in that. It also helped us reach our short-term goals. Although we still saw increased problems in the summer, peak SCC was lower than the previous year’s, as well as shorter lived. The challenges now are maintaining our employees’ interest in the program in order to see further improvements and getting new employees to buy in.

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The bonus program will undoubtedly evolve as we work toward long-term goals and introduce new employees who may respond differently. At the moment, we have two new hires who will be introduced to the program after two months, when we typically give their first raise. With more disparity in hours worked, we will need to revise the structure somewhat.

In general, though, we believe that getting our employees involved was an important step in changing our whole culture for the better, so we hope to continue to offer incentives to encourage continued progress.  PD

Jennifer Heim
  • Jennifer Heim

  • Dairy Producer and Engineer
  • Heim Dairy
  • Email Jennifer Heim

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