A milker sprays out a parlor in Texas.
A milker sprays out a parlor in Texas.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in our December 2014 issue as a special insert. To view the article in its entirety with sidebars from that issue, click here: http://www.dairyherd.com/magazine.

How’s your pit crew performing? In racing, an effective pit crew’s attention to detail and efficiency often makes the difference in the hundreds-of-miles-long race. A well-run pit crew can mean checkered flags and championships. But problems in the pit gets you distracted or even suspended from the sport.

Your milking center crew, whether you’re in a pit parlor, step-up, tie-stall, rotary or automatic milking center, also makes a difference – on your bottom line instead of the finish line.

Missing a step in the milking parlor – like missing a lug nut on a race car wheel – are simply unacceptable. Still, both happen.

In terms of poor parlor performance, The Ohio State University Extension College of Veterinary Medicine’s Dr. Gustavo Schuenemann set out to find out why.

Give your pit crew the tools they need

In an effort to help parlor crews become more proficient, Schuenemann theorized that consistency was key. – However, in addition to the long-discussed rules of milking routine consistency, Schuenemann aimed to improve the attitude of the parlor team, and in that limit the farm’s employee turnover.

To do this, he began with a series of pre-tests, training sessions and post-tests for parlor employees. Quickly, he learned that the comprehension and competency of employees on the 57 Ohio farms he studied was quite good, but there were typically a few that just would not pick up the skills needed to be good milkers.

“Do we truly look for good team members (right people for the right task) when hiring in the parlor?” Schuenemann asked. “Or do we look for warm bodies?”

Schuenemann understands the lack of labor availability at times, but was curious if finding the right team members could significantly improve attitude and employee turnover.

“You can give people the skills and the knowledge, but it’s also about their attitude and performance,” Schuenemann explained. “They can come with a positive attitude, but you must give them the working environment to achieve maximum results by ensuring all the tools are available to them in order to keep it.”

Blind to success

During his parlor training, Schuenemann asked milkers to write down any cows they found with mastitis during forestripping. Inevitably, a few of the same milkers would simply always write down a lower percentage of these well-managed herds’ cows as having mastitis. But he found something he was not looking for, and it was staring him in the eyes.

“During the written tests, I realized some of the milkers were squinting and struggling to read the words on the paper,” Schuenemann explained. “I asked them if they had vision problems, and they said yes.”

Those workers simply could not identify cows with mastitis.

Schuenemann found the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates about 24% of Hispanic population have vision impairment, but most have no access to eyecare.

The milkers with vision problems were then reassigned to fetch cows and an optometrist appointment scheduled to remedy the situation, and nearly all the poor-performing parlor situations were quickly resolved. Schuenemann notes that despite many dairy farms’ aversions to insurance, providing vision coverage to employees could quickly pay back in productivity.

“When an employee is failing due to a lack of ability like sight, the co-

workers likely notice even if they don’t know why their performance is suffering,” Schuenemann said. “You can quickly see how the working environment can get poisonous quickly for that employee, when others don’t want to work with them, make their time working more difficult, and do other things to get them to quit so performance increases during their shift.”

Rather than focusing on turns per hour or milk per hour, Schuenemann suggests that personnel turnover rate at the parlor is probably the leading indicator of future success.

“Over 30% turnover is too high, and not enough time to build an effective team,” Schuenemann explained. “It could cost a dairy 70% to 150% of wages in training new employees, but that is not even including lost performance costs.”

Table 1. Improving turnover and parlor performance results for a 2,000-cow herd.
Improvement Milking losses
30% employee turnover versus 5% $8,554
85% parlor performance versus 95% $35,412
Schuenemann 2014, American Association of Bovine Practitioners

Schuenemann’s research also found that the best thing to help parlor performance may be scheduled meetings outside of the parlor. He suggests meetings every six weeks to two months, and has facilitated many of these himself on larger dairies in Ohio and other states.

Each meeting has a specific agenda, from parlor protocol to handling fresh cows, and often starts with 5 minutes of Q&A while pizza or other food is served. From there, Schuenemann talks for 40 minutes about the day’s subject. During the last 15 minutes of the first hour – with the parlor manager or farm owner present – they talk about actions and adjustments needed, protocol changes, or even pay raises and other benefits.

Then, Schuenemann, native to Argentina and fluent in Spanish, facilitates one more hour of what he calls “group therapy” for workers. They can air concerns, ask about shift changes or anything else related to the actual work. Manager(s) are there just to listen by receiving the actual translation of the real issues.

He will take notes, and if there’s a missing tool – a broken gate, broken hose, or new boots needed – that’s the manager’s responsibility.

“A lot of these workers are now looking forward to the meetings,” Schuenemann said. “Although they know they can speak with their manager at any time, they’ll see me pull into the farm and say, ‘I’ve got a long list this time!”.

“Fully trained and competent workers know what to do and how to do it, and have the skills and abilities to do the work. However, competent workers will often fail to perform due to conflict, lack of satisfaction, motivation, and/or communication; resulting in lower work performance which affects the overall herd productivity” Schuenemann said.

“The meetings are meant to clear up gossip and improve attitude. Schuenemann wants farms to achieve better working environments and more completely engage employees by training early – before workers enter the parlor – and often. “To accomplish this, we need true “leaders” as herd managers with the skills and abilities to anticipate and fix people problems” Schuenemann said.

“The parlor is one of the most detail-intensive places to work on the farm. The workers there ultimately do care, but it’s not for everyone,” Schuenemann said. “They will sometimes ask for more money in the meetings, but it’s usually not the top priority. And sometimes, the manager is the problem, not the milkers.”

And, according to research presented by Schuenemann in an abstract at the recent American Association of Bovine Practitioners annual meeting, lowering turnover can mean thousands of dollars in improved performance and less time spent training – far less cost than a few pizzas and a facilitator.

For a 2,000-cow herd, quarterly trainings showed a potential $26 to $1 return (based on milk price) if parlor performance was improved from 85% to 95% compliance and employee turnover dropped from 30% to 5% (see Table 1). That could be a difference in tens of thousands of dollars over a year, depending on the milk price.

Parlor Performance Metrics
  2X Milking 3X Milking
Average Milk Flow (Milk per cow/duration milking) 8.5 lbs/minute 6.5 lbs/minute
Milking duration Four minutes for first 25 pounds, 0.5 minutes for each additional 10 pounds
Two minute milk yield 18.5 lbs/minute 14.5 lbs/minute
Cows/Stall/Hour - 4.7 to 5.7 turns/hour
Rotary with 60+ stalls - 6.5 cows/stall/hour
Milk/stall/hour 150 pounds 115 pounds
Peak milk flow (Milk produced between 60 and 120 seconds 10.5 pounds or more 8.5 pounds or more