For years, standard operating procedures, along with an employee handbook and on-the-job training, did the trick for teaching milkers at Brian and Yogi Brown’s Sunburst Dairy near Belleville, Wis.

“But when we added the second barn in 2008 and expanded to 500 cows, we realized we were still using the same SOPs we had developed years ago, and they were outdated,” says Yogi Brown.

She emphasizes training for new hires, especially during the first two weeks of employment, because that is the time that people really want to learn. “They want to know the ‘why,’ and I want to be able to give it to them,” she says.

The Browns began working with dairy consultant Tom Wall, owner of Dairy Interactive LLC, to develop clear job descriptions and fine-tune wage and labor policies. Then, several months ago, Sunburst’s milker training entered the digital age when Wall booted up the Dairy Interactive computer program he’d developed, and milking instructions took on a whole new dimension.

Here’s a look at some of the efficiencies gained with this new tool.

Training trials and tribulations

There are lots of ways to teach milking routines, including written lessons, lectures, watching videos and hands-on demonstrations. The crux of the issue, according to experts from the Penn State Dairy Alliance, is to select a method or a series of methods that is appropriate for both the material to be learned and those who must learn it. Trial and error may be the preferred way for an employee to gain skill, but that strategy generally doesn’t translate into good parlor policy.

Brown says she’s tried a number of teaching methods with varying levels of success. “I did a lot of the initial training, and now we have a very good lead milker who does most of the training, but it can be a challenge. SOPs and detailed task lists are really good things to do, but they can only take you so far,” she says.

The dairy invested in training videos, which added a visual component to milker education, but also had limitations. “We’d watch the videos, but then I’d say, ‘don’t pay attention to this part, because that’s not how we do it here,’ or ‘that’s not how our parlor works,’” says Brown. “It was frustrating for me and confusing for our milkers.”

Craig Carncross, partner in Wargo Acres 300-cow dairy near Lodi, Wis., identifies with Brown’s disappointment. “It’s one thing to have things written out, or even be in the parlor with new milkers, but training is not always an easy thing to do, especially if someone has worked on another dairy; it’s easy for them to lapse back into their old way of doing things.”

Fire up the laptop

Earlier this year, Sunburst Dairy decided to tweak its milking routine to slow prep time just a tad to improve milk let-down and decrease somatic cell count. Brown had a few reservations about how to implement the adjustments, since it involved changing the sequence of prep procedures so that teat dip would remain on the cows an extra 20 seconds. “If you’ve ever trained someone in a parlor, you know that you need to make sure your procedures are right the first time; it’s very difficult to make a change,” she says.

That’s when Wall introduced Sunburst employees to the Dairy Interactive program.

The Windows-based, 3-D interactive software can be customized to demonstrate hundreds of parlor configurations and prep routines in English and Spanish.

Sunburst’s new routine was entered into the program, and milkers watched it come to life on screen.

“We only had an hour during our meeting to go over everything,” says Brown. “As soon as Tom had the program ready to go, bingo, everyone was watching a top-down view of the parlor. Everyone could see what was happening, what we needed them to do. And the changes happened immediately. We hardly had to correct anyone, because they could see it and ask questions before they had to do it.” And the interactive component of the tool enabled Brown to explain the “why” of what employees were expected to do.

The program also lends an air of importance to training sessions, says Carncross. “Milker reaction is to sit up and take notice. I also find they ask a lot more questions, which makes our meetings more interactive.”

Time savings, consistent results

Both dairies also gained somewhat unexpected benefits from the tool.

At Sunburst, even with changing the milking routine, overall milking time dropped and parlor through-put improved. “Milk let-down was faster, so milking went faster,” says Brown. The dairy also noted the desired positive effect on milk quality.

Milkers learned how to better organize their actions, like filling the towel hamper as cows enter the parlor, not after all the cows were in and ready to be milked. They could also see why dipper placement was important and how it could make their job easier and more efficient. All total, each shift shaved about 15 minutes off each milking session.

“Milkers gained an extra 15 minutes for lunch, and we got our cows milked better and faster, so everyone won,” she notes.

It’s all about organizing the work, and helping employees to see the impact of each action, explains Wall.

Meanwhile, Carncross says the computer tool has also enabled him to save time in the parlor, as well as save time during the training process without short-changing the dairy or employees. “It’s easy to grab the computer, pull up the program, and go over our routine.”

In addition, he says the tool has enabled him to spend more time on other management areas during team meetings. “We can go over any specific things we need to target, then move other to other things, like equipment, and go over that rather than spend all our time on milker issues. It’s bad for morale when you can’t get past a certain point and have to go over the same things again and again.”   

Carncross also credits the program for helping to keep his milking routine on track. Procedural drift is the enemy of consistency, and Carncross says the ease and convenience of the interactive program makes it simple to get it out and remind people how things should be done. 

“It also means than my training is more consistent,” he says. “I have to be able to rely on my people, and this is one more tool that helps me to do that.”

Technical support

The Dairy Interactive program is simply an outgrowth of the age-old need to train people to do their jobs well, explains developer Tom Wall, dairy consultant and owner of Dairy Interactive LLC, of Green Bay, Wis. “It just uses technology that exists and streamlines what we do everyday into a computerized training format.”

The program can be customized in a myriad of ways, with parlor configurations from a double-four to a double-24. Users can choose from any number of milking routines to mirror on-farm practices.

Or they can use it as a planning tool, should they decide to expand or remodel their facilities.

It also offers a way to look at different routines and how they will work in a system before making a change. “It eliminates the human bias,” says Wall. “What you think may be a great routine may not work at all in your system; conversely, what you think may not work in your system may actually turn out quite well. This way, you can see it in action rather than rely on intuition.”