Welfare can sometimes be a scary word for dairy operators. Dairy producers are often afraid that the term welfare may be used to damage their standing in the community or limit their methods of production and ability to market milk. As we know, good welfare is important for cows. However, we also want to ensure we have good welfare practices in place with our two-legged teammates. Their interactions with our cows may also increase their health and well-being.

Miller luke
Dairy Technical Support Specialist/ Alltech

A few key questions to focus on with our employees include:

  • How do we create job security and importance for those who help us produce safe and wholesome products every day?
  • How do we create a culture of retention and somewhere that teammates want to go to work?
  • How does the human-animal interaction or relationship (HAI/HAR) fit into this retention of quality teammates and help your bottom line?

We all place a lot of importance on the comfort and conditions for our four-legged working teammates – the cows. We need to put equal effort into assuring the safety, comfort and engagement of our other two-legged teammates to ensure productive outcomes for our operations.

Our industry is reactive, and we tend to “snap-hire” whoever may come through the gate. We lack structural organization, and we're dealing with a completely unknown workforce – both in terms of skill level and animal background. One of the best ways to get around this issue is to start becoming proactive and create structures for human resources that allow us to generate a culture of retention and job enjoyment so that our best employees want to stay and recruit other great teammates to join us.

The vast majority of our employees have little or no experience working with dairy cattle. The average educational level is somewhere between the second and sixth grades and, for the most part, they have no connection with our dairy industry. It is very important to provide good training so we can retain good help. Over 90% of our employees make their “stay or go” decision within the first six months, and everyone who leaves costs us valuable time and money.


Competition with other nonagriculture industries, hard jobs, long hours, no room for growth and attractive high-paying seasonal jobs are all reasons for teammates to leave us. Without a quality team and a thought-out HR structure in place, the reality is high teammate turnover.

Many people talk about ways to create a retention culture and things that you can do on your dairy to make teammates want to stay. I want to look at a little different option to try, in the hope that our teammates find their job even more enjoyable and will stay with us long-term.

The HAI/HAR can be defined as the mutual perception of the human and the animal, which develops and expresses itself in their mutual behavior. What this tells us is that this is not a one-way street. Both the animals and the humans are interacting and coming away from every interaction with continuously evolving thoughts and behaviors for the next interaction. It has been found in research that animals will indeed generalize their experience from a caretaker and transfer that onto the next caretaker. So, if we have someone who is behaving poorly with our cows and the cows behave poorly toward that caretaker in return, they will naturally transfer that behavior to their next caretaker the following shift or the following day.

HAI/HAR, with their concern for welfare and productivity, have two different types of interactions: negative and positive. On the positive side, we can see increased milk yield, increased conception rate and increases in average daily gain (ADG) in calves. On the negative side, there is teammate injury, poor morale and decreased production of all types.

The negative interaction is shown in Figure 1. This is a continuous downward spiral, building on every poor interaction. Poor interactions cause fear. Pheromones are then secreted, which inhibits oxytocin, and then we see reduced performance in the parlor. In fact, research shows that this effect gets greater and greater as we continue to go around this downward spiral.


How can we begin to get out of this downward spiral?

We must start changing attitudes and modifying behaviors through better experiences and interactions. We do this with new information and training. By training and retraining our teammates, we hope to change any bad attitudes and poor behaviors toward animals. Many of these interactions were formed long ago and have never been “untrained.”

We have challenged our management teams that it is not enough to teach teammates to care for cows, facilities and equipment, and we have found that when we care for the teammates' safety and well-being, they are more likely to care for the cows, facilities and equipment that management finds important. For example, we care for our teammates and show them how important they are and, in turn, they care for our cows because they know how important cows are to us. Research backs this up. Animal welfare is likely to seem less important to those who feel that human welfare is being neglected.

Back to the HAI/HAR and its importance to mutual welfare. When we focus on the upward-spiraling relationships as depicted in Figure 2, we see that when we place importance on the training of stockmanship and welfare, we encourage having positive interactions.

This allows for mutual enjoyment from both the animal and the teammate. By having these interactions, we see an increased investment in animal care and welfare. When other employees see this happening, they jump into the upward spiral as well.

Animal and teammate welfare is important on all operations. If we want to retain great teammates and have a quality, safe and efficient production facility, we need to make sure that both parties are taken care of. We can use animal stockmanship and welfare training to help build a culture of animal welfare and teammate retention on our operations.

References omitted but are available upon request by sending an email to the editor.