20 square feet per 100 cows: Important surface area on a dairy

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Got your attention, didn't I? What 20 square feet is he talking about? Why is it so important? You'll see!

Dan and Chip Heath in their book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, describe how to communicate ideas more effectively. They provide a simple formula about how you can achieve more "sticky" communication. Using their tips, you can design effective communication that "sticks" in a way that changes opinions and behaviors.

At a recent Extension meeting, I began by asking each participant what they wanted to learn from our workshop. One dairyman commented that he wanted to know how to get employees to consistently do a good job. This is a great question! Many tasks on dairies are repetitive, routine work that may seem unimportant yet these tasks are very critical to a dairy's success. Milking in particular is boring, repetitive work. It's hard for anyone to stay motivated to do good work especially if they do not realize how important their work is.

Several years ago I was invited to evaluate the milking routine for a large dairy with a serious mastitis and SCC problem. About a thousand cows were being milked 3X per day and the milking crew was a group of high school students. Two milkers manned each milking shift. These young men were a lively, fun bunch and had great confidence that they were God's gift to milking cows quickly and effectively. There was a milking SOP in place and compliance was relatively good; however, each milker had his own personal version of the milking procedure. The overall outcome was organized chaos. The bulk tank culture revealed high levels of environmental strep bacteria in the bulk tank milk - ”evidence of ineffective pre-milking teat sanitation. I knew that somehow I needed to make a memorable impact in order to change pre-milking cow prep behavior. Chip and Dan Heath's sticky message formula came to mind and I thought I would give it a try.

As the young men dutifully filed into the break room to hear "the professor's" lecture, with great flourish I drew a large 14'x14' square on the floor. While still wondering what the crazy professor was up to, I turned to them and asked, "If I asked two of you to clean and dry an area this big (pointing to the square) spotlessly clean and gave you seven hours to get the job done, could you do it?" "Of course!!" was their laughing response at such a ridiculous question. Then I said, "What if I were to say that I was really only giving you a total time of three to four hours out of the seven hours for the actual cleaning part of the job and additional one hour for the drying, could you still get it done?" "Come on! Of course we could, nothing to it!" Now they were really curious about where I was going. "Gentlemen", I said, "that's what we are asking you to do at every milking." I further explained that the surface area on the floor represented the teat surface area of the 1,000 cows they were milking. "Get every teat surface spotlessly clean and dry before you attach those milking machines," I explained. They were all ears now, listening intently. I could tell the message was sticking. Now they were open to learning that the source of the high numbers of environmental bacteria in the bulk tank milk was contaminated teat surfaces and that they could do a better job getting teat surfaces clean. I also explained that by monitoring the routine bulk tank culture reports, they could know when they were winning the game (everyone loves winning!). The message had successfully utilized the Heath brothers' sticky message formula and it had stuck! It was:

  • Simple. It caught their attention.
  • Unexpected. Drawing the square on the floor had aroused their curiosity and they wanted to know more.
  • Concrete. The idea was clear and understandable. It is easy to visualize a clean, spotless floor.
  • Credible. The idea was scientifically truthful. Who can argue that clean teat surfaces don't result in lower bacteria, lower SCC and less mastitis?
  • Emotional. The idea aroused their emotion. "Of course we can accomplish that!" Most commitment comes from a can-do emotional response, not intellectual awareness.
  • Stories. Riveting stories sell ideas. Personal stories and testimonials are strong motivators for behavioral change.

In simple terms, I had described the desired outcome of the pre-milking teat sanitation. The average surface area of a cow's teat is approximately 7 to 8 square inches or 28 to 32 square inches of teat surface area per cow. For an average 100-cow Minnesota dairy, this will be a total of about 20 square feet. For every dairy farm, this may be the most important surface area on the farm to keep clean and dry.

If you have had to tell someone the same thing ten times, you need to redesign your message. My experience tells me that there are a lot of opportunities to improve employee compliance by more creative communication. I suggest that every dairy herd owner, manager, educator and consultant read the book, Made to Stick: How Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.


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