January 29, 2023

Effective training for dairy farm employees

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Most losses in a dairy operation are the result of a number of factors.

“Use a holistic approach to trouble-shoot problems,” said Dr. Adrian Barragan, clinical assistant professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

“Problems such as low milk yield, poor conception rates or high incidence of disease most of the time have a multifactorial cause,” Barragan said during a Penn State Extension webinar.

“How we manage the cows and our facilities will determine if the factors are present or not and also who does the management,” he said. “We rely a lot on our personnel to keep our cows healthy and productive.”

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 60% of dairy farmers perform some sort of training for employees with a larger portion of the farms in the West providing training compared to the East region.

“Most farms will train new employees and provide one retraining,” Barragan said. “But quite often we train one time and forget we need to keep training employees.”

Research shows, Barragan said, that a combination of a lecture, video and on-job training gets the best results for training employees.

“The employees need to know the whys of each practice and the consequences of not doing it properly,” he said.

When Barragan does personnel training on dairy farms, he starts the process with an assessment of experience and personality of the employees.

“I like to do a personality test to get an idea of how to manage people,” he said. “When you give directions to some people they will follow them and other people need feedback constantly, so knowing those key personality traits helps to manage the people better.”

A personality test can also assist with allocating tasks.

“For example, at one farm there was a milker who was never happy and then we moved him to delivering feed,” Barragan said. “After that every morning he came to the farm with a smile on his face and he did a much better job as a feed delivery guy than a milker.”

Barragan advises dairy managers to train every new employee regardless of the level of experience.

“I don’t care if they have 20 years of experience milking cows because they haven’t milked cows at your farm,” he said. “They need to know the protocols on your farm.”

To measure the impact of the training, Barragan said, a test of knowledge can be completed before and after the training.

“One of the more challenging steps is to measure personnel performance,” Barragan said.

“You need three components to be able to accurately measure personnel performance — provide proper training, develop protocols that are easy to understand and be aware of disabilities,” he said. “For example, one farm had an employee with vision problems, so he couldn’t read the protocols.”

Metrics and benchmarks are needed to access different job responsibilities such as handling cows or teat end cleaning during the milking procedure.

“Set up who has to do the assessment of performance and how and when they are going to do it,” Barragan said. “Look for trends during a specific time or day of the week to see where the management is failing and make sure it is an unbiased assessment of performance.”

For facilities, managers can evaluate pen cleanliness or feed management and for milk quality, somatic cell counts can be used for evaluating employee performance.

“There are many metrics you can create based on the practice you are accessing,” Barragan said. “But without good protocols and records, it’s not going to be an accurate process.”

Cameras in the milking parlor can be used to measure personnel performance.

“It’s time consuming, but it can be useful,” Barragan said.

“We used a camera to access feed bunk management, feed delivery frequency and how long the transition cows were without feed,” he said. “The camera showed a lot of inconsistency with the feed delivery time at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. and remember cows are animals of routine, so they like consistency.”

Phone apps are another option for capturing data on dairy farms.

“We developed an app to measure the timing from a calf birth to when it received the first feeding of colostrum,” Barragan said.

The personnel was trained to feed colostrum to all calves during the first three hours after birth.

“This employee with a high variability for feeding colostrum was a multi-tasking guy who was doing the feeding, pushing feed and assisting with calving,” Barragan said. “Collecting data helped us to identify the causes of the lack of performance, this guy was overwhelmed with multi-tasking.”

Regular retraining of personnel can improve employee retention, Barragan said.

“Ideally you should do retraining every three to six months, but this can vary based on personnel performance,” Barragan said.

“Use a teamwork approach because every task you do can affect the performance of the cow,” he said. “If you don’t work as a team, you’re not going to have a profitable operation.”

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor