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Worlds apart, the same familiar challenges

J.E. Johnson and G.J. Lascano Published on 11 March 2014

In a small village in El Salvador, four co-ops are struggling to keep their fledgling dairies alive. Devoted co-op members work seven days a week tending animals not suited for their climate.

They produce just enough milk to meet the needs of their communities, and when there is excess, they struggle to find a foothold in the local market.

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They come as novices to dairy farming with credible and hard-earned aptitude in cooperative cane and corn production, but little educational background and minimal access to professional expertise.

The land and the animals were given to them as a form of aid, with little thought as to what would be needed to create a profitable, self-sustaining enterprise. Nonetheless, these co-op members are undeterred.

Their ultimate goal is to do what is necessary to make these dairies successful, and as a result, bring much-needed resources into their communities and contribute to the national “Glass of Milk a Day” initiative.

“Glass of Milk a Day” is a government-supported initiative which aims to provide a glass of milk a day to each school-aged child in the country and is modeled after similar successful programs in other countries.

The chance to make a difference for so many people around them is incredibly motivating. The following includes findings from an assessment team recruited to provide suggestions for improving their dairy operations.

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On the outside, we’re worlds apart. The daily experience of life in rural El Salvador is vastly different from what we experience in the U.S. In the U.S., access to clean running water and a functional waste removal system is a given for most of us; that’s not so in rural El Salvador.

In the U.S., milk quality standards are regularly met; that’s not so in rural El Salvador. In the U.S., we have highly mechanized farms and hundreds or thousands of animals; we have access to vets and nutritionists and we have animal and dairy science degrees. That’s not so in rural El Salvador.

Take a closer look though, and we’re not so different, either. Just as in the U.S., dairy effectiveness and productivity is as much about managing infrastructure and people as it is about managing animals. It’s about working smarter, not harder.

Consider the following: The co-ops in El Salvador have paved and covered an area much larger than what is required for proper milking, yet lack some important components. They lack a confinement area for the cows before milking, a restraining area for milking so they would not need to tie the legs, a place for the milkers to wash their hands and systems for proper waste disposal.

Although this type of infrastructure is often taken for granted in the U.S., these additions and changes can be easily implemented at a low cost, and their implementation will significantly impact production. Changing how we manage people requires similar attention.

For example, selection and training of personnel is critical to hygienic milking. If done well, a clear milking routine adhered to strictly should not only improve milk quality but also help educate employees as to how they personally affect the success of the operation.

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Having clear procedures in other areas of the dairy can also impact efficiency. If individuals are trained and held accountable for reporting and documenting information daily, or as it occurs, the task is small and manageable. If, however, there is little attention paid to the importance of thorough and up-to-date documentation, things can pile up and the task can feel insurmountable.

Although each of the dairies showed us where they tracked information, very little of the information was current or complete. Imagine the benefits to putting such a system in place during the start-up phase, before the pile has a chance to build up.

Imagine the personnel issues that could be avoided and the monetary savings that could be gained (reduced turnover, lower workers compensation premiums) through the use of accurate documentation.

Another important element of working smarter and not harder is taking advantage of appropriate available personnel. In El Salvador, although many of the women do bring experience in managing milking cows for their own families, there is little willingness to acknowledge the expertise the women have developed or their willingness to take a larger role on the dairies.

Focus groups suggested a cultural assumption that women either couldn’t or shouldn’t (for physical and familial reasons) be involved in dairy operations, an assumption that research and some of the women have shown is actually unwarranted.

The research suggests that in some roles, the characteristics most commonly attributed to women might actually be more effective, for example in calf-rearing. In fact, around the world as much as two-thirds of the workforce in livestock production are women.

On the surface, these cultural beliefs may seem quite foreign from what we experience in the U.S., but just for the sake of argument, consider how many women you know who work on dairy farms. Perhaps it’s possible there is a segment of the population that is not being utilized to its fullest extent.

The co-ops in El Salvador have something else going for them that warrants attention here. Unlike so many others in the area, their decision to work together with fellow co-ops has meant their survival.

By coming together under an umbrella organization, these co-ops have been able to hold on to their resources and increase their standard of living; their dedication to the group and its goals is palpable and humbling.

As a result, if the group deems community health and education, animal welfare, production of high-quality milk and strong personnel management important, members will work tirelessly to achieve those goals.

Every member can see the importance of their work. This means the dairy industry in developing countries has the potential to play a fundamental role in moving their communities and their countries forward.

Some of the suggestions offered to the co-op dairies probably sound familiar; some may seem relevant for your dairy – and some may not. However, even if your dairy is well-established and you have years of experience, it is important to remember that everyone can benefit from this type of assessment, or internal audit, if you will.

Just as a new business comes up with a business plan and assesses viability, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in El Salvador, Uganda, Hungary or the U.S. – an evaluation of your technical, financial and personnel risks and resources is necessary.

Although having successful dairies in El Salvador was a major objective for these co-ops, they were open to other potential alternatives if deemed more profitable. The co-ops wanted to know what they had and what they needed in terms of facilities, qualified personnel, training and education.

If we know where we are, we can plan for where we want to go; we can facilitate achievement of specific short-term, medium-term and long-term goals. In the end, although we may feel like worlds apart, the truth is we’re not. Many of the challenges are the same, and we each have a great deal that can be learned from the other. PD

J.E. Johnson has a Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology from Penn State University and is currently a grant coordinator at Clemson University, South Carolina. G.J. Lascano has a Ph.D. in animal science with specialization in dairy ruminant nutrition from Penn State University and is an assistant professor of ruminant nutrition at Clemson University.

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

johanna johnson

J.E. Johnson
Grants Coordinator
Clemson University

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