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Strive for continuous improvement with ‘lean’ farming practices

Bev Berens for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 June 2018

Lean would be one definition of the financial situation in today’s dairy industry. But the concept of lean represents a mindset of farming that takes stock of every step in the production process to reduce waste.

Susanne Pejstrup, founder of Lean Farming Inc. in Denmark, introduced lean to attendees during an in-depth session at the 2018 Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference in Michigan. Pejstrup explained how farmers can introduce standards to create a systematic work structure in a goal-oriented culture that strives for continuous improvement.



Lean has helped farmers in many sectors reduce waste, increase productivity and develop a culture of personal responsibility among employees when the system has been wisely implemented.

Lean originated as a tool to streamline manufacturing, but its methods have proven beneficial on farms in the U.S., where lean is in its infancy, and in Europe, where lean is more common.

Five S’s of lean

The big picture of all components and departments in any-sized dairy farm can be overwhelming if taken as a whole. Breaking down the farm into bite-sized areas such as maternity, milking parlor, feed alley, medicine room, shop, etc., reduces pressure to achieve everything at once.

Each bite is then chewed into smaller bites using five S’s of a lean workplace: sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain.

Sorting and setting things in order make items easier to find, and create efficiency and, ultimately, safety. All tools for any given task are in the right place and must be returned after use.


For example, the blue-handled brooms belong in the shop, while red handles belong in the mechanical room, conveniently located and in order. It forces everyone to consider workflow patterns and ways to reduce extra steps or movement (a form of waste) between tasks and tools needed to accomplish the work.

Put a shine or polish in every location, whether that is a coat of paint, a good scrubbing, required repairs or a light that has been needed in a dark space for a long time.

Standardize with a photo chart. Responsibility belongs to all who use the area to sustain it. A high standard of order, and maintaining it, makes for a more pleasant and efficient work environment.

Putting out too many fires

Owners and top managers too often find themselves chasing down and putting out fires – a scenario indicative of a traditional structure where the person in charge is the primary customer, and employees seek to satisfy the customer by performing tasks and have little or no input into how the business can improve.

In lean, the model shifts, and employee team members are coached by leadership to improve every nook and cranny of the organization, creating and reaching toward new goals through continuous improvement.

By evaluating every aspect of the farm one at a time, as well as establishing easy work routines, regular maintenance, clarity and organization, it will reduce time spent extinguishing fires and ultimately increase productivity. With higher productivity comes lower costs, less stress and more organized work.


“When workers are involved, respected and appreciated, they become empowered,” Pejstrup said. “Look at the heads, not just the hands.”

Daily meetings

Lean involves employees, and if there is any one key to implementing the system to the farm’s advantage, Allen Bonthuis of Coopersville, Michigan, believes daily meetings are the key. Bonthuis is a specialist in lean from both manufacturing and agricultural perspectives.

“It teaches time management,” Bonthuis said. “We are here for 15 minutes every day – no excuses, no tardies, no passes.” The time is used to share expectations, learn from each other and educate. “It sets the standard,” he added.

Meetings begin on time and end exactly on schedule. Praise for teams and individuals is part of each meeting and, over time, everyone is expected to explain or demonstrate an idea or improvement.

The meeting and culture of the organization must be a safe place for people to share without fear of ridicule, a key component in gaining the participation and commitment of every team member. Respect and appreciation toward employees will eventually bring about their active participation in creating, sustaining and improving.

Identify the customer and eliminate waste

Each segment in the farm’s supply chain has a customer. Determining who the customer is and mapping all the processes required to service that customer identifies waste within each system. Eight types of identified waste in any value stream includes defective product, overproduction, waiting time, non-utilized talent, transport, inventory, motion and extra processing.

One value stream example could be heifers or – broken down further – weaned calves up to 6 months. Defective ones could be animals from cows that don’t meet minimum herd production standards. Are there more heifers than necessary? That would be overproduction.

Is there waiting time between chores within the group? Can it be eliminated so the entire job takes less time? Is the equipment used right-sized for the job? Is supply inventory adequate? Too low or high?

Are there wasted steps in completing the jobs required to care for the group each day? Are there extra processing or tasks that really aren’t necessary to add value to the heifers on the farm? These questions, when applied to every value stream on the farm, will clarify who the customer is and how that customer is best served.

Lean: One farm’s story

Swiss Lane Farm in Alto, Michigan, always had the mindset of continuous improvement. Installation of robot milkers from Lely in 2011 helped the farm become more intentional in their improvement effort. Lely helped standardize procedures in the milking facility and, from that example, the practice grew.

“Cow comfort and overall well-being to get that quality milk has always been our main value,” said Annie Link, partner and spokesperson for Swiss Lane Dairy. “One thing that was really big was managing cow flow and tracking people so they were managing their time efficiently.”

“Minimizing steps in the pen routines helped make things more efficient, and we actually eliminated hours, the equivalent of a part-time person, in that area. We defined our efficiencies and tried to make sure the cows weren’t disrupted.”

Moving from two maternity pens on separate farms to one centralized location has been another change that delivered measurable results. “We have improved protocols, have better training and are able to track and monitor better. Other people are no longer distracted by working in maternity and focus on what they are supposed to do. Streamlining maternity was a huge benefit,” Link said.

One manager on the farm came from a manufacturing background, already trained in lean. His experience has made a big impact on the farm, especially in the maternity ward, according to Link. “He helped us develop specific protocols that are more intentional.”

Unexpected results of consolidated maternity pens include better and more streamlined training, and the management knows protocols are being followed. Two people were moved from maternity to managing vaccinations for the entire herd. “In all, we eliminated three jobs in that area.”

“Our employees are incredible,” Link said. “They are really good at making sure our cows are the number one priority. They are really committed, and that is what we need.”

Some things are always a challenge, and inventory control is one struggle Swiss Lane is trying to conquer. “Another thing that is unsettling, is: You are never done; you are always moving on to the next thing,” Link said. “You don’t want to do [lean] if you are not already doing the best you can.”  end mark

Bev Berens is a freelance writer based in Michigan.

Start with the bathroom

Looking for a quick start to the lean approach? Start with the bathroom.

It’s a place everyone can relate to, said Allen Bonthuis, a trainer in lean methods, both in agriculture and other industries. “If you begin in the shop, the people in the milking parlor can’t relate to what you are doing. If you begin in the calf area, people in the shop can’t relate,” he said.

“It is about a culture of respect and cultivating it. It is horribly disrespectful to go into the bathroom and leave it a mess. It’s disrespectful to ourselves, our fellow employees and the things we use.”

Keeping the bathroom clean becomes everyone’s responsibility. It is a simple beginning in showing respect for self and co-workers, and everyone is accountable to each other – from the owner to the newest employee.

A simple chart with pictures showing the standard of what each part of the bathroom should look like upon leaving sets the standard.

Bathroom #3 Cleaning Checklist

Naturally, barn footwear tracks in remnants of the barn. The regularly scheduled maintenance cleaning, like mopping floors, restocking, etc., are responsibilities rotated through the entire staff – from the owner to the newest employee – with clear communication and no doubt left as to who is responsible for each rotation.