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In the dog days of summer, people and cows need extra care

Richard Stup for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 August 2018

Like many people who grew up on a dairy farm in decades past, I remember long, hot days of baling hay in small square bales. We hauled the bales to the barn in hay wagons, unloaded them into the hay elevator, which took them up into the barn, and stacked them tightly inside the hay barn.

It was hot and sunny outside unloading the bales, but it was a dusty and stifling oven inside the hay barn. There was a row of locust trees next to our barn; the trees created a shady and breezy oasis where we would take a short break and have a drink of water after each load. I remember the hot, sweaty work of baling hay, but I also remember the good times hanging out with my brothers and other helpers for a few minutes at a time under those trees.

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Build relationships

In the dog days of summer, it’s important to balance hard work with human needs. Excessive heat is dangerous for animals and for people. Managers need to set the expectation that short breaks to drink some water are not only OK but are expected of everyone.

From a leadership perspective, the hot days of summer are a golden opportunity to work on building relationships. Just as I remember those water breaks under the trees, your employees will remember the time you brought them a round of water bottles and sat with them for five minutes of rest and conversation in the shade.

Build teams

An excellent dairyman I know turned the hot, difficult job of covering a bunker silo into a team-building exercise. Employees formed human chains to hand tires up to the top of the pile, like an old-fashioned bucket brigade. This big job called for all hands on deck, so there were many people represented from different native countries, farm jobs and experience, all working together.

After the job was finished, a pickup truck waited for them with cold drinks and coolers with ice cream treats. The work was hard, but these employees were laughing and joking together as they built relationships and strengthened team bonds.

Times of adversity are excellent for building teamwork. Leaders have a choice when times are tough: They can be grumpy and pessimistic, or they can be positive and courageous. The grumpy leader models discontent to the team and actually makes things more difficult.

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The positive leader makes a plan to get through the tough times and encourages team members to do their best, work together and support each other. The positive team leader comes through the tough times with a stronger team and the earned respect of the members.

Avoid major changes

Don’t make big changes right now. The hot summer days cause people to feel more drained, and taking extra steps to care for cows suffering from the heat drains even more energy. Changes to standard operating procedures require employees to use mental energy to understand, learn and adapt their normal routines. In the dog days of summer, energy is low, and patience can be short; that’s exactly the wrong time to introduce change.

Instead, keep things as routine as possible and use any extra energy to care for the cows. Plan and save your changes for the fall when the weather starts to cool down.

Emphasize safety

Safety should always be a priority, but summer brings up some special dangers. Many people are not aware of the dangers of heat and dehydration. Managers should talk with employees about heat and set an expectation of taking water breaks and finding shade for those who must work hard in the heat. The signs of dehydration include fatigue, headache, nausea, dizziness and muscle cramps.

On many farms, the summer months include an increase in large equipment moving around. Not all dairy workers are normally involved with the equipment and may need some additional training to be aware and act safely. Farm safety information and training resources can be found through state cooperative extension and through the Centers for Agricultural Safety and Health (The National institute for occupational safety and health).

Reinforce current training

Summer is not a time to let things slide; if anything, it’s a time to buckle down and focus on compliance with procedures. Bacteria and other organisms grow quickly in warm, summer conditions, feed spoils quickly, and flies carry contamination; somatic cell counts go up, and reproductive performance tends to go down. All these summer challenges increase the need for excellent sanitation and compliance with standard operating procedures.

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Use this time to train and educate your team about the importance of sanitation and how their work every day leads to clean, cold, nutritious milk leaving the farm destined for the homes of consumers. Spend time with employees as they perform their jobs and give feedback and coaching; this is the most important responsibility of a supervisor.

Time spent working closely with employees often helps managers find ideas for improvement and identify obstacles that frustrate your workers.

Use short-term goals

Cows tend to have more problems during the hot summer months than other times of the year. Employees can’t control the environment, but we can control how we respond to it. Plan activities and set short-term goals for your team, especially for the summer months, to help cows stay healthy and perform at their best.

Use the activities to help your team understand they have significant ability to help cows get through the heat and stay healthy and productive. You can also design activities to increase employee production knowledge and commitment to high performance.

For example, bedding management is critical in hot weather; bugs grow fast in wet, dirty bedding, and heat-stressed cows are less capable of resisting infection. Re-train your team on the importance of maintaining clean, well-groomed freestalls, then set a one-week goal for maintaining a high percentage of clean stalls – let’s say 95 percent clean at the end of each shift.

You walk through the barn and score the stalls several times that week and share your findings with your team. Those shifts that meet or exceed the 95 percent goal get a reward, such as ice cream provided for their break time. Attention will be focused on stall cleanliness, cows will stay healthier, employees will feel more empowered and, hopefully, everyone enjoys some ice cream.

Short-term goals and activities like this have the effect of focusing everyone’s attention on a particular performance area. When you set up the goal and explain the importance of clean stalls to animal health, it helps your team to grow in production knowledge. The activity and goal is short-term, but the learning and performance improvement will be long-term as employees understand and value keeping freestalls clean.

The dog days of summer are tough on cows and people. It’s a good time to get back to basics and take extra care of both cows and people.  end mark

Richard Stup
  • Richard Stup

  • Agricultural Workforce Specialist
  • Cornell University
  • Email Richard Stup

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