Cow comfort is a top-of-mind topic for farmers and consumers alike. Optimizing cow comfort is key to profitability on the dairy, as it is linked with higher milk production, reproduction and improved herd health. It is satisfying the animal’s needs, which can only be done by assessing each individual situation.
It’s also a moral requirement and, when done correctly, it will benefit the bottom line of any farm. The positive interactions among a cow, her place of work and the people who take care of her will ensure her well-being and longevity as well as happy workers.
In order to achieve good milk production, a cow needs to be injury-free, in peak condition, well rested and fed properly, every day. One way this can be achieved is by improving the environment in which the cow lives. This can only be achieved by learning, understanding and evaluating her activities.
There are various zones that can be evaluated, but the most important areas to focus on are feeding, milking, resting and walking, as well as ventilation. Reviewing the amount of time each animal spends in each activity will help the farmer understand how to optimize cow comfort. Observing cow behavior will provide clues in evaluating if the facilities need to be updated and renovated or if small changes need to be made – but not before assessing long-term plans.
Unfortunately, managers do not spend enough time training employees on cow comfort, and employees often don’t care or understand the importance of it, as they are focused on other assigned responsibilities. Also, there are lots of other variables to focus on, and this often gets missed.
However, farmers expect their animals to produce a lot of milk, deliver a calf and have minimal health problems, since the animals represent a significant investment for the farmer and, in many cases, the only economic lifeline.
It is vital to understand that a cow is a mammal, like humans. Just like us, it is impacted by the environment around it. If our diets are not nutritious, our houses not clean, or if we have not had a good night’s sleep, we get stressed and our productivity goes down. So profitability is only achievable if the cow is happy and comfortable.
Job instruction training
We live in an era of specialized skill sets. Effective training is the starting point of an effective workforce. Dairy owners might want to consider having an “in-house” cow comfort specialist. He or she would have the responsibility of evaluating, training and minimizing stressors to keep cows performing at their peak. Mentoring and continually training personnel is essential to ensure that the job is done thoroughly.
The simplest way is utilizing the job instruction training (JIT) method. JIT was developed during World War II because there was a shortage of trained and skilled personnel and a need for a fast and efficient training method. The goal was to train inexperienced workers faster utilizing four simple steps – tell, show, do and review.
- Prepare the learner: Put him at ease; explain the job and its importance.
- Demonstrate the task: Use step-by-step presentation of the job, stressing key points. Have employees explain each step.
- Performance try-out: Let the employee do the task under supervision. Repeat the task until he or she successfully completes and explains the task.
- Follow through: Monitor the worker’s performance, inspect work regularly and provide feedback. Continue to encourage him or her.
In order to have consistency across workers and shifts on the farm, owners should create a standardized method of ensuring cow comfort. For example, a simple manual with pictures explaining what the expectations are for a stall to look like is always more helpful than a long description.
These manuals should be part of the training program. Standardized training and guidance will ensure a standardized output in terms of environment and comfort.
Using JIT with an incentive program
The JIT method, paired with an incentive program, will help create an environment where all workers perform at a high level. Other factors like goal-setting, teamwork and performance reviews should also be part of the incentive program.
For example, it is well recorded that approximately 70 percent of the cow’s day is spent eating and resting; consequently, the cow only has an average of 2.5 to 3.5 hours per day to spend away from water, stalls and feed.
If an employee does not know this and keeps an animal for a longer time away from her pen, the animal will give up eating or resting, impacting her in a negative way and affecting the bottom line.
The owner and the feeder should know how long cows spend outside the pen, as this will result in an increase or decrease of milk yield. This is where teamwork kicks in; many tasks need to be completed on the farm, but everyone on the team should understand that even a slight problem with mixing cows, overcrowding, inadequate feed availability or uncomfortable dirty stalls will affect the animal’s production.
Thus, incentives should be provided to the team who has the direct responsibility for herd management practices.
A few factors to take into consideration when dividing up incentive payments are: responsibility level of each employee and number of hours worked. It is important to note that non-monetary incentives can also be effective. Employees are likely to have their own set of rewards they place more value on.
For example, one employee may value a gift card while another values praise, recognition or even may prefer more decision-making authority. Understanding your employees’ personalities is key. These become important, especially given the cultural nuances among employees.
Another factor that is overlooked many times is human-cattle interaction. Handling animals gently and vocalizing while they are being milked will help in milk production and possibly less residual milk. Or understanding that feed pushup, delivery of fresh feed and milking stimulate feeding behavior. But how would a worker know that if he isn’t taught? A little training goes a long way.
Cow comfort goals
Nothing of what is stated above can be done without attainable, challenging and measurable goals. Remember that goals should be “SMART” in nature. They need to be specific, measurable, actionable, relevant and time-bound. This principle applies to all aspects of performance management on the farm but becomes especially important when it comes to cow comfort.
Just like humans, cows have individual personalities and preferences. Thus, comfort goals will be subjective.
It is fairly reasonable to understand and agree that cow comfort can only be achieved through teamwork. The owner of the farm might be committed to the principle, but if the workforce isn’t, the goal is not achievable. As is the case with many farm goals, the critical prerequisite to achieving teamwork is to convince employees the success of the farm depends on it and making the direct connection between cow comfort and productivity.
Employees need to “buy in” to the concept. Education on the need for comfort, training on how to ensure comfort and proper incentives to achieve that comfort are the three legs of an exceptional cow comfort program. Ensuring cow comfort is key to profitability via higher pregnancy rates, milk production and lower veterinary costs. PD
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