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Optimizing employee management and dairy cattle welfare

Gustavo M. Schuenemann for Progressive Dairyman Published on 06 November 2017

It is common to observe great variation in dairy personnel turnover and performance among dairy operations. That variation can often be traced to training.

Farm owners and managers determine whether or not to hold training programs for their employees for a variety of reasons. They often struggle to balance investing the time and resources that go into training with employee turnover.



Recently, we assessed the types of training requested by stakeholders (farm owners, managers veterinarians or consultants) for their dairy personnel and the actual problems reported by workers.

What problems need to nbe addressed to improve your work?

A total of 1,100 individual written requests for dairy personnel training were assessed to determine the perceived training needs. According to stakeholders, the top five requests for personnel training were:

  1. Milking routine and mastitis control

  2. Nutrition management (TMR and feedbunk)

  3. Health screening for cows and calves (including proper animal handling techniques)

  4. Replacement heifers (e.g., calving, colostrum)

  5. Health and management protocols

These training sessions consisted of a one-hour lecture followed by one to two hours of demonstration and supervised hands-on practice designed to improve knowledge and skills. At the beginning of each training session, dairy personnel answered the question, “What problem needs to be addressed to improve your work?”

We received written responses from 2,900 individual workers representing 450 dairy herds distributed in 11 U.S. states and assessed them to determine the actual needs by personnel responsible to execute the daily tasks. The top five areas to improve work performance, according to personnel, were:


1. Lack of communication with co-workers or managers

2. Lack of written protocols and resources for the tasks

3. Lack of facility maintenance

4. Properly organize and schedule tasks

5. Schedule regular meetings to communicate and discuss tasks or issues

Developing knowledge and skills are essentials for implementing protocols and standard operating procedures to improve the overall performance and welfare of animals. To perform at their best for any given task, employees must have the appropriate attitude. Attitude is the way a person views something or tends to behave toward it.


It is important to note dairy workers have the ability to learn new concepts and improve their skills over time. These are important traits for management because both knowledge and skills are key for worker performance.

We also found fully trained workers “know what to do” and “how to do it”; however, workers with poor attitude (e.g., due to conflicts with co-workers or managers, lack of communication) have low work performance regardless of their knowledge and skills.

Therefore, while a training program is an essential management tool for modern dairy operations, the trainer must take into account the underlying problems negatively affecting work performance.

For instance, a training program designed to improve the dairy’s milking routine will likely not fix poor nutrition management, lack of proper facilities/equipment or maintenance needed to optimize the transition cows’ immune system.

We looked at the management practices of the top 10 percent of these dairy operations (cows housed in freestall barns, drylots or combination of both) in terms of consistent reproductive performance (26 percent or greater 21-day pregnancy rate), longevity of the herd (mean of 3.2 lactations or greater) and milk quality (mean bulk tank less than 200,000 somatic cell count per milliliter). They shared the following characteristics:

1. Committed and well-organized herd managers: These herd managers are characterized by their problem-solving and communication skills with a trusted relationship with their workers and advisers. These individuals have excellent organizational skills, manage their time effectively and always make sure workers have the tools and resources to execute their tasks.

Usually, these managers actively seek and accept feedback, either positive or negative, and look for ways to improve their operation. They tend to devote a large portion of their daily work hours to mentoring and supervising workers using a list of “talking points” (e.g., consistency of daily TMR delivery, timing of colostrum administration, milking schedules, monitoring body condition of animals).

They are always making sure their workers are properly compensated for their work, including a fair distribution of bonuses. Also, they value formal continuing education programs outside their working environment and interaction with professionals and colleagues.

A well-trained manager who focuses on managing the working environment will likely improve workers’ attitudes. This in turn improves teamwork (compliance with protocols) and often overcomes many other farm limitations, such as facilities.

2. Management program designed for transition cow needs: Although the word “program” was not always used during our farm visits, they did have a “plan of action” detailing what tasks need to be completed (who, when and what resources should be used).

In practice, the program was characterized by having a defined grouping (with weekly cow move) and feeding strategies for transition cows and calves that take into account their facilities. The overall program connected the following management areas: defined strategy to prevent hypocalcemia in prepartum animals, defined heifer replacement program and defined strategy to manage energy balance and prevent ketosis in early lactation.

These areas were connected using health and management protocols most humans can follow within the calendar week (greater than 90 percent agreement between what was stated on protocols versus what people were able to do).

3. Record-keeping designed to monitor processes: They have implemented a simple but meaningful record-keeping system with emphasis on monitoring processes.

The record-keeping system integrated the following areas: nutrition management (e.g., bunk space per animal, daily availability of feed within reach of animals, forage quality, weekly urine pH when feeding an anionic diet), cow comfort (e.g., stocking density, grooming of bedding), metabolic balance at the onset of lactation (e.g., energy and calcium), survival/health events (e.g., stillbirth, metritis, ketosis, culling within the first 60 days in milk) and development of replacement heifers with key biological outcomes of lactating cows (e.g., milk yield and components, reproduction).

The farm team regularly meets on-farm with input from advisers (nutritionist and veterinarian) to discuss the data, review protocols and use benchmarks for decision-making. They are aware of short-term variations (e.g., due to environment) and usually do not overreact with sudden management changes.

4. Training program integrated and consistent with established protocols: The training program follows the established protocols, is available for all farm employees and is delivered by in-house or third-party trainers. Meetings with employees are scheduled at least every two months to discuss meaningful items such as current protocols and making appropriate changes or management adjustments.

The owners or herd managers regularly attend these training sessions to remain engaged and generate meaningful discussions (collecting and providing feedback as well as answering questions or concerns). Knowing the employer provides proper training and development, the overwhelming majority of farm workers feel valued and considered that their work was important.

Often, I hear “doubts” or “hesitations” from owners to invest in a proper training program because workers will eventually leave the operation. Although personnel turnover is an inevitable part of the dairy business, perhaps the real question is: “What would happen if an employee decides to stay without proper training?” An example of unclear recommendations written on protocols is, “Wait two hours and assist cows experiencing difficult births” or “If there is no calving progress, call for help.”

In this particular example, the calving protocol must provide clear reference landmarks for time zero and signs of the normal progression of calving; otherwise, most calving personnel would not be able to properly follow the above recommendations. Training should be a critical component of managing modern dairy operations because of its implications on the overall performance and welfare of animals.

The dairy business is the art of controlling variation and managing risk. The best or most successful dairy farms have achieved “consistent management” over time by integrating the four points listed above. Every dairy operation is an integrated system, and management decisions made in one area of the farm will impact other areas.

The entire transition cow management relies on a number of preventive management practices to achieve optimal lactating dairy cow performance and, thus, profitability and welfare of the herd. Disease prevention at the herd level requires a constant effort and effective coordination of the whole system (animals, environment, facilities/equipment, feed/water and personnel).

Substantial knowledge exists to prevent many diseases or conditions; however, it must be translated into on-farm applications or practices to have a meaningful effect at the herd level.

With the scrutiny of antimicrobial use and welfare practices in food animals, dairies are always under the watchful eye of consumers, legislators and activists. It is important to have well-trained employees who follow the established protocols.

Investing in the best genetics, nutrition, veterinary care, cow comfort and equipment are all important. Those investments will fall short without developing the “human element.” As a starting point, review the consistency of your transition cow program with your veterinarian and nutritionist.

Make sure animals receive a balanced diet. Take into account the facilities, grouping and animal comfort. Ensure resources and personnel needs are available to implement health and management protocols. This conversation or exchange of ideas may lead to developing the “know how” for a long-term, economically sustainable management system with animal welfare “best practices.” These little details make the difference at the end of the day.  end mark

Gustavo M. Schuenemann
  • Gustavo M. Schuenemann

  • Veterinarian and Dairy Extension Specialist
  • Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine - Ohio State University
  • Email Gustavo M. Schuenemann