Commentary: When SOPs become CYAs

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If I’ve learned anything from watching action dramas on evening television, it’s that I should be careful where I scratch myself, even if I’m the only person on a hotel elevator. There are cameras everywhere capturing our actions.

We’ve learned that the hard way in dairy, what with the new breed of activist undercover agents seeking to rid the planet of animal agriculture, one edited video at a time.

Another thing I’ve learned over the years is that when you count on other people to get things done – the way you want them done – it’s a pretty good idea to put instructions and guidelines in writing.

Having been in this business for nearly 35 years, I don’t remember precisely when I first heard of the concept of preparing and incorporating Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in the day-to-day management of a dairy farm.

I do remember vividly, however, an evening meeting at World Dairy Expo, in which several consultants provided samples of SOPs, suggesting dairy farmers create step-by-step guidelines for feeders, milkers, calf managers and others.

They described how SOPs had been used effectively in other industries, and how dairy could achieve positive results by adopting similar practices.

According to Wikipedia, SOPs are defined as “detailed, written instructions to achieve uniformity of the performance of a specific function.”

We know how much cows like consistency, so SOPs certainly make sense — and dollars.

Today, SOPS are a necessary part of doing business; a toolbox to describe jobs on the dairy, and define the responsibilities and expectations of employees doing those jobs.

SOPs provide employees with a reference to common business practices or tasks. New employees use SOPs to learn procedures until they have them committed to memory, and experienced employees use them as a refresher when quality or performance slips. Written SOPs are used to evaluate and reward employees, correct behaviors, or terminate employment.

In recent years, SOPs have gone further. Some milk and meat retailers have developed their own production standards, requiring farmers to follow specific SOPs to market products to and through stores or restaurants. And now, SOPs are becoming necessary to CYA (cover your assets) – both human and financial.

As I write this, four dairy farm employees were facing trial in northeast Wisconsin, charged with abusing a down cow after an undercover video was distributed through social media. This particular dairy farm temporarily lost its milk market when the buyer feared consumer backlash.

Employees in videos like this probably aren’t following anyone’s SOPs for handling down cows. In fact, there probably aren’t any SOPs for this particular issue. Proving “teachable moments” and “actionable items” can be found in the darkest of clouds, the Dairy Business Association of Wisconsin recently hosted a meeting featuring a presentation by ANIMART’s Michael Costin, DVM, on “Down Cow SOPs.”

I asked Dr. Costin to write an article about his efforts to find accepted, documented down-cow handling protocols, and subsequent development of SOPs. You can find that article on page 16. Many SOPs are necessary for the day-to-day operation of efficient, profitable dairy farms.

First and foremost, down cow SOPS should be about the wellbeing of the cow.

In the end, however, they may also be about CYAs.



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