Enhancing dairy worker training

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Herd veterinarians are uniquely qualified to develop and participate in implementation worker training programs to their client dairies. Few others on the “management team” of the dairy have the intimate knowledge of the facilities, processes, people and cows that can be used to create an effective worker training program.

“It seems that there are increasing numbers of veterinarians who are including worker training as a part of the services they offer,” says John Wenz, DVM, MS, Washington State University. “My experience is that if you provide practical, realistic training and information you will be viewed as a credible person who is respected and will have an impact on the dairy.”

 Noa Roman-Muniz, DVM, MS, Colorado State University, also believes more veterinarians are stepping into the employee-training role. “We can be vital when it comes to training dairy workers because we can teach the people in contact with cattle how to recognize disease and manage the health and well-being of dairy cows and calves,” Roman-Muniz says. However, she doesn’t believe training needs a classroom setting.

“Every time we interact with dairy cattle, we are also interacting with the workers taking care of those cows. We can take advantage of those opportunities and share with workers the importance of keeping good records, being good observers, paying attention to detail and offering prompt treatment to sick animals.”

Obstacles to training

Increasingly, Hispanic workers are making up more of the workforce on U.S. dairies. Language and cultural differences between Hispanic and American workers are huge. “Sometimes it is hard to translate something very complicated into simple words that can convey why something needs to be done,” Roman-Muniz states. “On the dairies we work with in Colorado, owners understand the importance of training and just want to make sure that outside trainers (including veterinary consultants) are not instructing the workers to change protocols without the consent of the herd veterinarian and /or dairy management.”

Even if a dairy would like more training from its veterinarian, some veterinarians are reluctant to institute training programs, often because of the cultural and language differences. “I think language is one of the biggest obstacles and that does keep some veterinarians from doing more training,” Wenz says. “Options are limited: learn the language, hire a tech that has Spanish language skills, hire a translator or use someone on farm. The first isn’t practical, and the second is very possible. The third is too expensive, availability is a problem and use of a herdsperson to translate is problem-atic because he/she may bias his/her interpretation of what you said.”

It is very important to make sure that the interpreter conveys the correct meaning when translating, especially when working with an audience of migrant workers whose first language is Spanish, Roman-Muniz agrees. “I recently witnessed a situation in which the translator chosen by the manager was not doing a good job at translating the company’s policy for vacation pay and workers were getting more confused and angry. We need to be wise when choosing a translator and pay attention to the body language of our audience. Also, we should ask questions to make sure our message was understood.”

Management personnel involved in day to day activities should definitely be a part of the training, and owners or “upper level management” should be made aware of what was presented, Wenz suggests.

Roman-Muniz wants everyone on the operation to be on the same page. “I believe it is a good thing when workers see that management is committed to the training,” she says. “It is important that communication is positive and constructive during class. We want workers to see that we are working toward the same goal.”

The “why” in protocol training

In many occupations understanding why a protocol is done and how it impacts a system is important to compliance as well as the feeling of a job well-done. The dairy is no exception. “We want to give employees a ‘why’ for the procedures we teach them, but we need to keep explanations simple for those workers without prior formal education,” Roman-Muniz explains. “Regardless of which language we are using to communicate, we need to use vocabulary understood by everyone we are teaching.”

Some workers just need a basic explanation; others will ask for more details. “We need to assess the needs of our audience and figure out how much detail to offer to them. I believe we should share more with those workers interested in knowing details beyond those covered in the session. It helps having whys for most things because then it is easier for them to understand that we have a reason for asking them to do things differently or add a step to the milking routine, for example. We also need to educate dairy producers on the importance of follow up interventions.”

Veterinarians can’t take a cookie-cutter approach to training, however. It is always good practice to know what the current practice is before making changes. “Providing general knowledge, the whys behind the basic concepts of the protocols, can be done with personnel from multiple dairies,” Wenz says. “However, it is critical that the training program is specific to each dairy, taking into account the facilities, personnel and the needs and desires of the dairy owners. This does in part help reduce drift.”

Roman-Muniz agrees and says the veterinarian should familiarize himself or herself with the dairy’s current situation and protocols. “If changes in protocols are needed, then management should be involved and the trainer must make sure that the new protocols are doable  —  we need to study facilities, number of workers at different times of the day, etc. If we propose a change that is not supported by the facilities and management, then workers will not be able to do it and will lose motivation. We would be asking a lot from them without providing the tools to do their jobs safely and efficiently.”

Roman-Muniz stresses that the important thing about worker training and protocol monitoring is to not wait until things go bad. “By then, old or new bad habits have been adopted and in the meantime no one has mentioned anything to the workers,” she says. “That sends the message that we really do not care that much and that the area is not a priority.”

Providing immediate and positive feedback is important to maintaining motivation, Roman-Muniz adds. “I do not like the police approach; I think workers should see us as a friendly resource. By watching how things are being done and providing feedback at that time and during regular meetings, we can be most effective. We also should look at records to see what kind of impact the workers behavior is having on animal production and health.”

Protocol drift is not an employee problem, Wenz suggests. “It is most often a failure of management.” Effective worker training should result in employees performing their jobs according to protocol and the maintenance of, or improvement in, animal health and productivity. It is important to determine that workers know the hows and whys of their job and that management provide the necessary resources and routine, active feedback to avoid protocol drift.”

“Veterinary practitioners have a great opportunity to facilitate worker training sessions and monitoring to provide a complete, effective worker training program to the dairies they serve,” Wenz adds.

Strategies for training

Wenz offers these strategies to help dairy veterinarians train workers, assist the dairy in monitoring worker/animal-health performance and reduce drift associated with protocols.

Assessing acquisition of knowledge and skills. Assessing knowledge transfer to dairy workers is not always simple, especially due to varying literacy skills and language barriers. Asking questions in the context of the job the worker is to perform provides a basic assessment of knowledge of the protocols and understanding the importance of following them.

The worker training program needs to be modified to address high turnover on the dairy. Many times verbal quizzing determines workers know the hows and whys of their jobs, yet they aren’t following the established protocols; protocol failure often starts with management.

Reducing protocol drift. Even though workers may know and understand the significance of following protocols, they tend with time to drift toward more time- efficient protocol execution which may omit critical steps. Often, management unwittingly facilitates protocol drift by failing to provide the resources necessary to properly perform the job and/or failing to provide active and immediate feedback to workers to keep them on protocol.

Failure to provide needed resources. Time is often a limiting resource that makes it difficult to properly execute protocols. Feeders on a dairy responsible for monitoring the maternity pen and providing calving assistance may not be able to achieve it all given their other responsibilities. Demands for high parlor throughput often have milkers pressed for time and consequently, milking protocols are highly susceptible to drift.

Often a single night employee is responsible for many different jobs including addressing sick cow emergencies and more. It may not be feasible to increase the number of night employees, however, a system should be in place for the night employee to call for backup if needed.

Protocol drift is the result of lacking the proper facilities or tools to properly perform a job such as calving management which might require a convenient method of restraint near the maternity pen, the need to move a cow a distance to examine her, and even a ready supply of clean water distant from the site where calving assistance is given.

Failure to provide active, immediate feedback. The best way to avoid protocol drift and to get the most value out of training program efforts is to immediately tell employees how they are performing and to do so routinely. However, the most common feedback given to employees is no feedback which they interpret as passive approval. Instituting a worker training session without a cogent plan for monitoring and feedback often results in a significant waste of time and effort. Many times, worker training sessions are instituted in the face of a problem without developing a plan for monitoring and feedback which can be detrimental. Allowing protocol drift to occur tells the workers management doesn’t believe following protocol is important. If workers perceive their “working version” of the protocol is equally effective compared with the “stated protocol”, and management fails to prove otherwise, credibility has been lost.

The veterinary practitioner can provide a critical service to the dairy by identifying resource deficiencies that hinder proper job performance and facilitating routine, active and immediate feedback by developing routine monitoring on the farm.

Monitoring job performance. Worker training effectiveness is both evaluated and fostered by letting employees know that following protocol is important. Monitoring needs to be a part of employee training from the start. Direct observation of workers as they are doing their jobs is an obvious method of monitoring. There is a concern that what is observed may not be what is typically being done by unobserved workers. While performance may be at it “best” during observation, given adequate observation time, workers will revert to their typical routine. Furthermore, if they do not typically work on protocol it will be difficult for them to do so consistently and efficiently during an adequate observation period.

Cameras and video tapes in the parlor are often used to monitor workers; however, they are only effective if the employees know someone is viewing the tapes. Typically, we monitor outcomes directly and indirectly that indicate a job is being performed according to protocol.

“The frequency of monitoring will be dependent on the situation,” Wenz says. “Initially it will likely need to be more frequent. Employees need to know we are watching and care that they implement protocols as we described. As they become more accustomed to the new protocols, less frequent observation is necessary. It should definitely be routine and not reactionary and include metrics that are direct measures of employee behavior as well as animal health and/or productivity.”

Monitoring worker behavior. Monitoring worker behavior is the most accurate and direct way of determining if protocols are being followed. Routine evaluation (weekly, bi-weekly) of post-dipping as cows leave the parlor is a direct measure of milker job performance. Use of data recording sheets (e.g. day sheets and calving records) allows management to evaluate worker behavior. Useful data recording sheets ask for information that is specific to the job being performed. For example, rather than having a check-box to indicate colostrum has been given to a calf, the time colostrum was given should be requested as well as additional information on a calving record sheet. Having employees record actions provides accountability and evaluation of workers as a risk factor if problems arise.

Monitoring animal health and productivity. Monitoring animal health is an indirect measure of worker performance and is often impacted by multiple workers on the farm. Accurate, consistent recording of health events (dystocia, retained fetal membranes, metritis, mastitis) allows monitoring of “disease-prevention efficacy” and provides an overall indication of worker performance and protocol effectiveness.

For example, somatic cell count (SCC) increases can be caused by problems in pen/stall hygiene attributable to the “outside” crew, failures on the part of milkers, or both. Direct measures of job performance, such as post-dipping and stall cleanliness, combined with a rising bulk-tank SCC help determine “what process is out of control.” What often happens in response to a problem (rising bulk-tank SCC) is that management runs about the dairy looking for the problem area. With this reactive approach, quality has been lost and the cause may no longer be present. With a proactive approach, routinely monitoring the inputs (stall cleanliness, post-dipping), it is possible to make corrections preserving quality of the final product and maintaining animal health.



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