Since the first cow was domesticated, dairy farmers have continually invested in better ways to milk cows and deliver the highest-quality products possible to consumers. High-tech milking equipment, infrared milk meters, automatic detachers, electronic identification and animal monitoring technology all work together to benefit cow, equipment and people performance.

Dairy farmers and their teams also invest hours to learn about and understand the importance of animal care and the steps needed to ensure milk quality. The financial incentive to improve is staggering. It’s estimated subclinical mastitis alone robs more than $1 billion from U.S. dairy producers each year.

Moreover, we know milk with lower somatic cell counts (SCC) or lower bacterial counts will have a higher value due to increased cheese yield. In addition, higher-quality milk at the farm gate results in longer shelf life for milk once it’s pasteurized.

Incentive ideas

To meet these objectives, dairy managers and their teams must be committed to improved milk quality efforts.

While there are numerous ways to incentivize employees to achieve higher-quality milk, programs must be designed from their onset with the right performance parameters in mind. As labor experts from the University of California note, selecting the wrong monitors will frustrate employees with efforts that do not achieve the desired results.


Always keep in mind an incentive is an investment and, when incorporated well, can be a smart move to help achieve your dairy’s overall goals. Investing this extra money in your team can result in higher returns that aid in farm profitability.

Following are several strategies I have seen during 20-plus years of experience working with cows, milking parlors and milkers.

Not surprisingly, some programs work better than others. You will need to determine which program is the best fit for your dairy and your team.

1. SCC as a goal

One common method is to set a certain monthly SCC level as a goal for milkers to achieve.

  • Pro: This is one of the simplest ways of rewarding employees for increased milk quality. Employees either meet the goal and receive the bonus, or they do not.

  • Con: While a bonus program based on SCC level may seem straightforward, often it is not the best option.

o That’s because to achieve this goal, it is tempting for employees to pull all cows they deem to be a quality risk – valid or not. The hospital pen can fill up rather quickly, likely unnecessarily reducing your dairy’s amount of salable milk without actually maintaining or increasing overall milk quality.

o In addition, SCC is influenced by other factors. For example, SCC can fluctuate depending on the environment, and milkers would be penalized by things they have no control over.

2. Goals for overall milk quality

Another option is to develop an attainable bonus for quality milk using monthly SCC, new mastitis cases and bacteria counts.

For example, employees receive a bonus if monthly SCC is below 200,000 cells per milliliter, standard plate count is below 10,000 colony-forming units per milliliter and less than 3 percent new mastitis cases are diagnosed per month.

  • Pro: This is a better way to use quality to set bonus goals because it is broader than simply using SCC.

  • Con: Again, this program includes quality measures that may be out of the control of employees. For example, inadequate hot water can affect equipment sanitation, which negatively influences bacterial counts.

3. Offering a percentage of the farm’s milk quality bonus to employees

Under this plan, the dairy distributes a percentage of its monthly milk quality bonus to all employees. This can be a highly successful bonus program – if handled correctly.

  • Pro: All dairy team members have a hand in attaining the bonus. Having a common goal can enhance teamwork and help farms more consistently achieve its objectives for milk quality – and beyond.

  • Con: Success depends on transparency and teamwork. You must share and explain the milk quality requirements of your milk processor or cooperative so everyone – even team members not in the parlor – understands what is needed to obtain the bonus. You also have to be open about the total bonus received by the farm, especially as it fluctuates based on market conditions.

Additional considerations

Regardless of the program you adopt, complete details of what the bonus is and how it is achieved must be clearly communicated before implementation. You also need to be willing to adjust your program if needed. Achieving the dairy’s milk quality goals is based on successful team performance, not the rigidity of a bonus program.

To help, include training and refreshers about the factors that affect each parameter of milk quality as an essential part of your plan. Periodically invite your processor or cooperative’s technical service team to your dairy for an interactive training session with your team – especially with new hires.

Depending on your farm’s needs, plan a monthly or quarterly meeting to go over the details of your bonus program. Also use this time to constructively address root issues lowering milk quality. And be sure to celebrate successes.

Bonuses can be a great way to incentivize your team, but whatever system you use, always be consistent. You can’t take a bonus away if your team reached the goals you set just because milk price is down.

Be sure you implement a quality program for the right reasons. If high employee turnover is a concern, offering bonuses may not solve the issue.  end mark

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Randy Tapia