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Lean principles have applications in calf management, too

Andy Beckel for Progressive Dairy Published on 06 November 2020

Typically found in manufacturing businesses, Lean principles became popular in the 1990s when Toyota streamlined automobile production processes.

However, this idea dates back to the time of Benjamin Franklin, who once wrote about eliminating waste by avoiding unnecessary costs, increasing profits and better serving customers.



You may be thinking: I run a dairy farm, not a factory. Lean principles can be applied to your dairy regardless of size.

What does having a Lean dairy mean?

Having a Lean dairy means you are striving to eliminate waste. Types of waste we typically see on dairies are overproduction, unnecessary transportation, excess inventory, unneeded worker motion, defects or damaged tools, overprocessing of colostrum and calves waiting to be fed. If this waste goes unaddressed, it creates inefficiency down the line, whether in workflow or in calf health.

The 7 Lean principles as applied to your dairy

1. Eliminate waste: You can eliminate waste in inventory, waste in time employees are standing around or walking to and from buildings looking for things.

2. Build quality in by creating simple, easy-to-follow steps everyone can understand: Many times, there are inconsistencies in the quality of care between shifts. We often see issues where the night shift leaves work for the day shift. The simpler and easier we make the protocols, the more likely the calf is cared for properly.

3. Create knowledge: Training all employees the same and keeping that training ongoing ensures proper protocols are current to your standards. Also, explain why you want things done in a certain way and how it benefits not only the calves but them as employees. A happy employee takes better care of the animals, resulting in better animal welfare.


4. Defer commitment: Continuously strive to make your protocols simple, cut out all unnecessary steps, review and revise protocols as needed. With modern technology becoming more prevalent, things like having the ability to receive text messages from or view logs on a screen gives your employees immediate feedback, without having to wait for a month-end report.

5. Deliver fast and efficient care to newborn calves: Increasing the speed of thawing, and the ease of putting away the collected pasteurized colostrum, means it’s done immediately. This protects the colostrum from bacterial growth, making it a more nutritious meal.

6. Respect people: Empower your employees and communicate effectively with them. If they don’t speak the same language you do, get someone to translate for you or create posters. Using pictures and text (in all necessary languages) helps. Depicting the steps and the equipment the employee should be using helps keep protocols consistent. Open and honest communication is key.

7. Optimize the whole: When redesigning or building a new facility, don’t just think about the placement of equipment but also the amount of space needed for workers to do their jobs properly. Having the pasteurizer, freezer, thawing unit and feeding equipment all in the same location, near the newborn calves, is essential to delivering care quickly and efficiently.

How to build a Lean dairy

Sounds overwhelming, doesn’t it? It doesn’t have to be. Start small.

First, cut out all the unnecessary steps. Eliminate the waste found in the maternity area. Cut out walking steps by keeping clean tools readily available to care for and feed newborn calves. Eliminate excess supplies; keep on hand what is needed and get rid of the overstock. Cut out wasted time by employees looking for people to answer questions because they are unsure of what to do. Do not milk a cow outside of your “normal” milking hours. Changing protocols to enhance calf health will save all the extra time to nurse sick calves.


Next, review, revise and improve your standard protocols. Create an efficient work cycle, with the flow of work organized and in the correct order. Don’t waste extra time by having employees bounce back and forth from area to area.

Do your employees do all the tasks the same? It is a waste of many man-hours if they are doing their jobs differently, and results in different quality of care for each calf. Your standard newborn calf care should be easy to follow and easy to repeat. The steps should be clear and simple to carry out, available to employees in their language.

Then create a workspace and procedures that flow. Have the right tools and make sure they are in good working order. If not, replace or repair them. Make sure all disposable supplies are stored in the same location and disposed of in a marked location. We should not reuse disposable supplies. Make sure all reusable supplies are clean and put away in the proper location, making them easy to find when needed.

Some ways to help create flow, if you have a colostrum bank or freezer available, you don’t need to collect the colostrum immediately after birth. You can quickly warm the frozen colostrum, feed the newborn more quickly and save time by collecting colostrum at the regular milking hour. Having a thawing unit is a quick way to thaw the frozen colostrum by not having to wait for it in a sink of hot water or risk the chance of an employee using a microwave and getting the colostrum too hot to feed while killing all the immunoglobulins, and potential burning of the calf’s esophagus. Microwaves should never be used to warm up colostrum.

Have a clear protocol of when and how to clean reusable items. Having reusable items, like a stainless-steel tube feeder, can save you money and space by limiting disposable feeders storage space and constant replenishment. Sort your inventory, know what you have, where it goes, and make sure it always gets put in the same place. Label the location, if need be. Set tools and supplies in order of use. Keep all tools “shining,” meaning make sure they are clean, sanitized and in working order; if broken or damaged, they should be set aside to be replaced or repaired.

Reducing wasted time and materials is essential to your dairy’s profitability. We are always striving to improve the quality of care and welfare of our calves. We want to reduce the time a calf is waiting on colostrum to be fed, reduce the time employees are wasting by unnecessary steps and reduce the time we may be spending on caring for sick calves caused by unclear protocols. Also, we can reduce costs by streamlining our protocols.

Finally, review, revise, improve and repeat your protocols as needed. Train all your maternity area employees to make sure they are doing every step in the same fashion, every time.

Remember, be patient. Creating this streamlined Lean dairy is not going to happen overnight; it is going to take time and trial and error. In the end it will be worth it. end mark

PHOTO: Photo by Mike Dixon.

Andy Beckel
  • Andy Beckel

  • Golden Calf Company LLC
  • Email Andy Beckel