COVID-19 & dairy farms addressed by Cornell experts

COVID-19 & dairy farms addressed by Cornell expertsby Edith Tucker

ITHACA, NY – Two experts at Cornell presented a webinar they developed to dairy farm owners and managers, along with other farmers, packed with helpful up-to-date information on the COVID-19 pandemic and what steps they should consider taking to protect their workforce and their businesses.

Richard Stup, Ph.D., who leads Cornell’s Agricultural Workforce Development Program, and veterinarian Rob Lynch, who serves as the Dairy Herd Health and Management specialist on Cornell’s Pro-Dairy team, collaborated on the presentation, designed to help farmers mitigate the spread of the virus.

These are extraordinary times that call for leaders who act calmly and make science-based decisions, the two experts pointed out.

“This is a very stressful time for everyone, and people who work on your dairy will be looking to you for some help,” Lynch explained. “You’re all very experienced in dealing with very stressful conditions and operating under sudden constraints. It’s important to lead by example. The precautions and safety measures being recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.gov) and World Health Organization (WHO) apply to everyone, and your showing by example sets the tone for what’s expected on the farm.

“Encourage questions. All questions are good questions,” he continued. “Just because something seems obvious to you, do not assume it is obvious to everyone.” Develop a culture in which questioning is accepted.

The presenters listed some disclaimers, noting they are neither lawyers nor healthcare professionals who can offer individual medical advice. Their intent was to help dairy management think about ways to organize day-to-day farm operations through the lens of COVID-19 guidance. “We don’t have all the answers,” Stup said. “Let’s keep the communication going. Information and recommendations are changing rapidly. We don’t know where all this is heading; we don’t know how long we’re going to be in this type of environment.”

Understanding the importance of “flattening the curve” is key to understanding the reasoning behind the recommendations everyone is being asked to follow.

The whole point of frequent hand washing, not touching your face, avoiding crowds and social distancing is to prevent and slow the virus’s spread, resulting in a far lower curve, Stup said. “It’s not so much about individual health as it is about everyone’s health – the community’s health – and not overwhelming our healthcare system.”

They emphasized the importance of managers talking with their employees, including family members, about coronavirus, how it spreads and how to prevent infection.

“Their levels of COVID-19 awareness will probably vary widely,” said Stup, urging that managers use the curve graphic to explain why prevention and control is so important.

The New York State Health Department has a coronavirus website with English and Spanish printable posters that can be downloaded to teach how to prevent coronavirus infection at health.ny.gov/diseases/communicable/coronavirus.

The CDC provides clear guidance about preventing infection in English, Spanish and other languages at cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/communication/factsheets.html.

“Post information in your farm’s workplace(s) and in all employee housing,” Stup said. “Spend time with employees talking about this information. Think through your current practices: Is there soap available at sinks for hand washing that’s regularly restocked and are cleaning materials and tools available? Think about the places that should be routinely cleaned: breakroom, bathrooms, tools, control buttons and door knobs. These should be cleaned on a regular schedule.”

“Cows cannot catch COVID-19, so people will not give it to cows or catch it from them,” Lynch stated.

Typically, people who work in agriculture try to “tough it out” when they are ill, Lynch said. Impress upon employees who say they’re “not that sick” to stay home. The goal is to prevent the virus from spreading into the community where vulnerable people are at risk.

If you provide housing for your laborers, plan in advance how you would provide isolation for a COVID-19-infected employee, possibly in an unused room or RV, and think about who could be tapped to provide meals and care. There are immediate steps to take.

“We need to actively manage cleaning and disinfection in the workplace and employee housing,” Stup explained. Set up regular weekly and daily schedules with assigned responsibility. Use the CDC guidance for cleaning: cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/home/cleaning-disinfection.html. OSHA also provides guidance on preparing workplaces: osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19.

Provide cleaning supplies and use the CDC’s list of approved anti-microbial cleaning products.

Dairy managers should carefully review the directions for mixing chemical products, as well as the recommended contact times on surfaces and, importantly, worker safety when handling them.

Stup acknowledged that managing employees’ housing can be awkward since it’s their personal space. “The reality is, however, if you own that housing and provide that space, you, the business, are responsible for that housing,” he emphasized. This is not the time to be hesitant or stand-offish about actively managing the schedules for consistently cleaning the workplace and housing, Stup said.

Now is the time to review your farm’s sick leave policies since the number one recommendation on dealing with COVID-19 is that sick people should stay home. A farm employee going to work while sick could turn an individual problem into a workforce disaster, Stup warned. “You may want to think about providing sick leave at this time,” he said, noting that sick employees may not stay away from their jobs while they recover if it reduces their weekly pay.

The U.S. government approved a new federal sick leave policy on March 18 – the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. This complex new law and its policies could be subject to interpretation as they’re implemented, Stup warned. The act covers businesses with fewer than 500 employees. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees – likely many farms – may be exempt if the costs of implementation make them no longer viable. The act provides 80 hours of sick leave – full pay for sick or quarantined employees, two-thirds pay if caring for another. Up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave at two-thirds pay is available to care for an employee’s child if a school or another provider is not available. Employers can take tax credits against the 6% Social Security tax to cover the benefits provided. If costs exceed Social Security, then the government will send the employer a check.

New York State has its own new sick leave policies, both temporary and permanent, and farmers from other states should seek information from their state agencies and/or state Farm Bureaus.

Some states, including New York and New Hampshire, have waived their normal seven-day waiting period for employees laid off through no fault of their own so they can immediately apply for unemployment benefits, including those who are quarantined or sick due to COVID-19.

Stup and Lynch discussed the importance of being sure that all farm employees understand the seriousness of this disease by talking with them about it often and providing Spanish-language information. They urged managers to minimize face-to-face meetings to only what is “business critical” and avoid shift overlap. Postpone staff meetings and substitute other modes of communication, including phone calls. Use white boards for in-barn communications but be sure to sanitize the markers.

They recommend that each farm create a visitor log to record the names of those who come to the farm, including contact information. Record whether they entered the facility and/or interacted with any employees or only delivered or picked up items from a designated place. This way, should any communication be needed in the future, there is accurate documentation of all comings and goings on your farm, Stup explained.

Milk processing plants are instituting additional safety measures to ensure that regular milk pick-ups will be maintained.

“Eliminate employee contact with your milk haulers,” Stup said. “Include all surfaces handled by the hauler in your stepped-up sanitation procedures. If possible, make disposable gloves readily available. Be sure soap and towels are well-stocked at heavily trafficked sinks, like those in the milk house.”

Feed and other supply companies and delivery services are all instituting additional precautionary measures for their employees. Minimize the need for delivery personnel to enter your facilities by designating a covered drop-off location, in which you have provided protection for items that shouldn’t freeze and cooling for items that must be kept cold. Waive all requirements for getting a signature upon delivery.

Both WHO and CDC have stated that the likelihood of catching COVID-19 by touching cardboard or other shipping containers is low.

Develop contingency plans should specific medical supplies become in short supply and be aware of what therapeutic alternatives could be used.

Livestock sale barns remain open and operational but attendance should be limited to registered buyers and employees. Check your local sale barn for its specific guidance.

Semen delivery and AI technicians have stepped up their use of personal protective equipment and personal distancing policies for both deliveries and arm services. Try to minimize the need for any face-to-face communication with AI techs by communicating your specific needs before they come to the farm, Lynch said. Some outfits suggest ordering semen in advance, just in case the delivery system is disrupted in the future. Farm personnel already trained in AI could fill in if techs become too busy or become quarantined or fall ill.

Dairy Herd Improvement Association (DHIA) testing and lab services will continue in compliance with CDC precautions, Lynch said. Samples for field staff should be left in a reception area, avoiding any interaction with farm employees.

Veterinarians may need to operate with reduced services or support staff due to their own health needs, so postpone services that are not critical and use remote communication for assistance when practical.

Lynch and Stup discussed emergency preparedness and how to think about having to manage with a reduced labor force. Certain activities must continue: feed delivery, milking, manure management, hoof trimming and calf care. Activities that could be reduced includes some scheduled maintenance and reducing milking from three times a day to only twice, which would lower both the cows’ productivity and farm income. Team meetings, farm tours and sales visits should be eliminated.

Owners and managers need to think about who could fill key leadership positions. Are there retired farmers who live nearby who could fill in for a few hours a day? Could you begin cross-training now for critical jobs? Even if a manager is mildly ill, could that person provide leadership by phone?

“It’s great to know that there are so many dairy farmers who are preparing to deal with this crisis,” Lynch noted. “The industry is pulling together.”

Stup urged farmers to take care of themselves, and not to become over-stressed by watching too many news reports or lots of social media. He urged everyone to take breaks during the upcoming spring weather.

For more information visit agworkforce.cals.cornell.edu

2020-04-15T17:30:34-05:00April 8, 2020|Eastern Edition, Mid Atlantic, Western Edition|0 Comments

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