In 2013, researchers from Michigan State University, Penn State, Mississippi State University and Florida A&M set out to formulate a quality milk assessment for the prevention of mastitis and reduction of antibiotic use on dairy farms.

This Quality Milk Alliance extension and education initiative, a five-year study supported by a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, has three aims: to develop an on-farm milk quality evaluation, train specialists to conduct the evaluation and test the system as an intervention in dairy farms.

While four of the topics included in the assessment – namely milking proficiency, milking systems, cow environment, infected cow monitoring and therapeutics – are rather standard, surveys identified a fifth unanticipated area of concern: farm management culture.

“I think that from the scientific point of view, we have a good understanding of mastitis, what it is and how it is controlled. The other part of it is the involvement of human beings,” explains Dr. Ruben Martinez, a sociology professor at Michigan State University and project investigator.

As part of the study’s first aim, focus groups involving employees and owners/managers were held on dairy farms in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida to investigate mastitis prevention procedures. Anonymous 16-question surveys revealed the first evidence of a possible disconnect between the understanding of management and employees as well as severe language barriers.


Specifically in labor education, while 59 percent of owners/managers claimed they are the primary instructor of new milkers, the majority of employees claimed this learning comes instead from senior workers.

A further disparity was evident between English-speaking and Spanish-speaking employees, with 42 percent of the former claiming to receive training from higher management, while this number dropped to just 13 percent for Spanish speakers.

Martinez attributes these barriers to the consolidation of dairy farms and the subsequent increase in demand for hired labor. Additionally, the push to produce a greater quantity of milk at a faster pace may increase the pressure on milkers and reduce milk quality.

Dr. Andres Contreras Bravo, a large animal veterinarian and assistant professor at Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine (MSU-CVM), elaborates that this transition has come much later than other industries and thus has put dairy farms behind in many human resource aspects.

Unlike transition cow or calving management, the practices crucial to preventing mastitis involve a number of different workers in a variety of positions, which can complicate communication issues further.

“The cow part is easy, but actually learning to deal with people is very difficult,” Contreras Bravo says. “And now if you add that sometimes the people you are working with are not going to speak your language and they have a different culture, that makes it really difficult.”

In an attempt to overcome these communication gaps, a pilot study on 12 herds included the addition of a designated Quality Milk Corner at each facility. This area, usually in a break room, utilizes simple materials like trifold poster boards and construction paper to educate workers in both English and Spanish.

“[Employees] have an interest in learning more,” Martinez says. “They don’t have a good grasp of why certain practices or protocols are conducted and how they relate to the prevention of mastitis.”

Who are the educators for these on-site classrooms? Dr. Ron Erskine, dairy extension veterinarian and professor for MSU-CVM, explained that the initiative is encouraging herd veterinarians, with their vast knowledge of infectious disease control, to engage not only with managers but also employees – the people who interact directly with animals and equipment.

“There are really three stakeholders in this case,” Erskine says of mastitis. “We always talk about dairy producers as stakeholders, and you have perhaps the veterinarians and other professionals on the farm, but I think the other stakeholder group we kind of overlook is the employees and what they have involved.”

In the pilot study, veterinarians identified mastitis risk areas specific to a farm and presented related lessons developed by the research team to employees. Topics included somatic cell count and its relationship to milk’s shelf-life.

Their occasional in-person lessons were reinforced by interactive quizzes and other postings in the Quality Milk Corner. The hope is that increasing worker knowledge will improve motivation and attentiveness to farm practices, thus improving milk quality and reducing mastitis.

Although according to Erskine the employees were a bit apprehensive at first, they came to understand the veterinarian as a third party and appreciated the respect they were shown. Producers noted that employees became more engaged, some even reporting friendly arguments among co-workers over mastitis-related statistics.

While no single evaluation will suit the diversity of modern dairy farms, the Quality Milk Assessment attempts to provide fluidity.

“It has to be something that producers feel gets a return on their investment, not just for the monetary but also the labor issue and time. We work very hard to make this system a user-friendly one for dairy producers,” Erskine says.

Moving forward, training for those conducting Quality Milk Assessments is in development, and the research team is recruiting 130 farms from Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida for a 15-month study to determine the effectiveness of the Quality Milk Corner and other aspects of the assessment in mastitis prevention.

“I would rather see real change in just two or three things on the farm than trying to make a long list of everything that needs to change about your mastitis program. I think that gets – from a research level, employee level and veterinarian level – too unrealistic,” Erskine says.

“If we can actually change behaviors on the part of the owners and the employees on at least three things, and in the long term if that helps in mastitis or antibiotic use, then I think we win the day or at least we have a system that seems to be heading us in the right direction.” PD

Holly Drankhan is a senior at Michigan State University with plans to attend vet school. She was a 2014 Progressive Dairyman editorial intern.