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Cultural issues and mastitis prevention

Tamara Scully Published on 18 July 2014

Mastitis prevention is contingent upon having operational protocols in place that reduce the likelihood of developing infections or of transmitting the disease. But having the right procedures in place isn’t enough if your employees don’t follow them.

Perhaps the employees aren’t trained effectively, don’t fully understand the training they received or aren’t providing feedback on what is or is not working in the day-to-day operations.



Dr. Rubén Martinez of the Julian Samora Research Institute at Michigan State University, recently presented data from focus group studies of dairy employees – both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking – conducted in early 2013.

Martinez, speaking at the Penn State Mastitis and Milk Quality Conference, addressed behavioral barriers found on dairies and suggested ways to improve employee management.

The focus group study was conducted as a part of the Quality Milk Alliance, a USDA-funded partnership among Michigan State University, Florida A&M, Penn State and Mississippi State, formed to reduce antibiotic use on dairy farms as well as decrease the incidence of mastitis.

Employee perception
While all employees in the focus groups understood mastitis control was primarily dependent upon cleanliness, the perspective of the employees differed based on their cultural background.

English-speaking employees felt confident they understood mastitis and what needed to be done to prevent it. Spanish-speakers, on the other hand, felt they lacked some vital information that would help them to better understand and prevent the disease.


Culturally, the Latinos “perceive things in terms of their context,” Martinez explained. In the U.S., however, the tendency is “to look at things in terms of parts.” For English-speaking American employees, it’s simply a matter of following protocol. The Latinos, however, “felt a need for more training to understand the why of their jobs.”

While the Spanish-speaking employees understood what to do – strip, dip, milk, post-dip and seal – to prevent mastitis, they also understood the disease as requiring a whole-farm approach, from proper bedding to clean equipment and machinery, and maintaining a sanitary environment in and out of the milking parlor.

They understood preventing disease was more complicated than simply obeying milking procedures, but they didn’t have a full grasp of why and how disease prevention worked.

Martinez shared real responses from various focus group members, illuminating how the Spanish-speaking workers understand workplace information through their own cultural perspective and cognitive perceptions.

“This information is getting down to them, but they may understand it in a little bit different way,” Martinez said.

Several issues were identified as contributing to incomplete mastitis management. Worker fatigue, with many dairy employees working 72 hours per week in 12-hour shifts with only a 30-minute break, contributed to inconsistent compliance with protocols.


Owners, Martinez said, believe that workers are 90 percent compliant with mastitis prevention procedures, but the focus group studies suggest that the compliance is probably not that high.

There was also a limited understanding of somatic cell count levels and antibiotics among employees. On farms with SCC bonuses, however, the significance of SCC levels was better understood.

Communication is also a concern. Most dairy owners do not speak Spanish, and most Spanish-speaking workers are not fluent in English. Both employees and owners, however, tended to feel there were not any communication problems, despite one worker typically serving as a translator and primary employer-employee communication involving a lot of gesturing.

“They didn’t think there was a communication problem. Especially with an intermediary and lots of pointing involved, both parties assumed the message was clear,” he said. “You have to ask yourself: What is being communicated from one employee to another?”

The lack of effective communication leads to inadequate training for workers. Most workers learned from other workers via on-the-job training. Formal training was most often held when a new employee came on board. Many employees also lack a formal education, so technical terms and scientific statements may not be well understood.

Latino worker culture
Dr. G. Andrés Contreras of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University worked with Martinez, researching ways in which dairy owners can close the cultural gap and incorporate approaches to enhancing employee performance. They presented several common scenarios that might happen on a dairy and explained the behaviors contributing to the situations.

One situation discussed was that of an employee meeting in which the employees are not engaging at all. They are not asking questions or voicing any opinions. This is common because many Latin American cultures are based on a hierarchy.

Unless asked directly to give an opinion, working-class individuals will not volunteer one. Offering an opinion or questioning something may be seen as a challenge to the authority – the employer – and may be seen as disrespectful, Contreras said.

The reluctance to speak out may also be a function of “collectivism,” where the group is more important than the individual. This is the opposite of the culture here in the U.S., which is characterized by “individualism.”

If a group of workers all came from the same town, it is even more likely that workers will not speak out against one another, even to correct someone who is doing a procedure incorrectly.

Workers may also be fearful of losing their jobs if they raise questions or concerns about workplace processes. Fear of punishment and economic loss is strong. One way to combat this is to create an environment where workers are not chastised when a problem occurs, but are empowered to help fix it.

Younger workers may not act as leaders to their elders even if the dairy owner gives them a leadership position. This is related to the high regard that is held for elders. In addition, some Latino cultures do not have a high regard for bosses, so Latino workers may not want to be seen as one.

They tend to value hands-on work, and bosses in their culture are supervisory and may do little hands-on work. So promoting a good employee may require understanding these issues and promoting a workplace culture that supports Latinos as leaders.

“Sometimes an opportunity given to one might be a good thing for him, but they are always afraid that it will be a bad thing for another,” Contreras said.

Sometimes, a worker won’t train another worker when asked because they may not understand why they have to do so, especially if they think they are training their own replacement. They won’t ask the boss, and they simply nod and seem to agree, but the training never really happens.

The worker may not understand that the training is happening because the workload is increasing to require two people or that the other person is going to cover the days when the employee himself is off from work.

Racism among workers can also be a concern. There may be forms of racism between Latin American sub-cultures, Contreras explained. Workers who are not from the same ethnic background often have issues working together due to racial stereotypes. Latinos are very heterogeneous, and one cannot assume they are all culturally alike.

Making room for culture
Latino cultures emphasize respect for the person, and communication often requires an informal conversation about the person and his family before jumping right into business. Saying good morning and making an inquiry as to the worker’s well-being is polite. Not to do so may be perceived as an insult.

While the dairy will have a formal organizational culture, the workers will also have an informal culture. This informal culture impacts the way in which employees work together. If you employ English-speaking and Spanish-speaking workers, there may be two distinct informal organizational structures.

A lack of understanding of the cultural differences found between English-speaking and Spanish-speaking employees, as well as overlooking the features of Latino cultures, can cause procedural difficulties on the dairy farm.

Employees might not follow the protocol due to lack of understanding. They may not feel empowered to approach the boss with any suggestions or concerns. Good employees may be reluctant to take on leadership roles due to cultural norms.

Cultural differences contribute to communication difficulties and may contribute to employee apathy. Apathy can be exaggerated by cultural isolation, lack of social venues and overwork. Cultivating employee social opportunities, understanding cultural differences and working to overcome barriers to effective communication can promote better mastitis management.

“Western culture is task-oriented. Latino culture is person-oriented,” Martinez said. “It is important to know your workers on a personal level and to learn the features of their culture.” PD

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food systems topics.