Each task on a dairy farm is important to the farm’s bottom line and depends on “things done right.” But it’s easy for employees to drift from the procedure, which can result in breaches in safety procedures, compromised animal health and significant financial loss.

Dr. Lisa Holden, associate professor, dairy science, Penn State Dairy Extension Team, described procedural drift, or non-compliance, as the difference between the contents of a written policy and what actually happens daily.

“Procedural drift creeps in like a fog,” said Holden. “It’s normalization of deviance. The drift that happens becomes part of normal operations. Bad habits take root like weeds. Safety can be compromised.” Having standard operating procedures (SOPs) in place doesn’t prevent drift but can help.

Holden said it’s human nature to take shortcuts, or perhaps timing and production or financial pressure are the issues. In some cases, a lot of work must be accomplished in a short time, or the dairy is short staffed. Leadership and culture can also make a difference. When just one or two people in the organization begin to drift, risk rises for the entire farm.

The idea behind SOPs is that each task is done the same way no matter who performs it. “The standard is for all,” said Holden. “It’s important to communicate that. The reason procedures are in place is so everyone does things the same. Consistency is gained through SOPs.”

Simple steps are the easiest SOPs, and include 10 or fewer steps with no decisions to make, often in the form of a checklist. “It’s great for safety,” said Holden. “It’s also great for new employees.”

The second type of SOP is hierarchical steps. “If you have minimal details, it helps with clarification. It isn’t a great format for complicated tasks but can work well for simpler tasks.”

An SOP for milking might include major tasks such as wiping dirt and debris from the udder, pre-dipping all four teats, then taking two squirts from each teat and observing for abnormal milk. Below those steps are the details: wear gloves, using one clean paper towel per cow, make sure to cover three-quarters of each teat, strip into a strip cup, understand what abnormal milk looks like.

When an SOP involves decisions, a flow chart might work best. A graphic format breaks larger tasks into smaller chunks and allows the viewer to see the process and ensure details are not lost.

“Flow charts help workers make decisions consistently,” said Holden. “Do we treat a cow or not? How do we make those decisions? Do we want the person to notify a manager or do we want them to do something else?”

SOPs can be enhanced with photographs, which might show exactly how teats should be dipped or how much bedding to put in stalls.

There are many reasons for drift, including SOPs that are written but not always used. In some cases, experienced employees who have done the job over and over will slowly drift from what they should be doing.

“Sometimes there are poor performing employees who understand what needs to be done but may not have the motivation or willingness to get the job done,” said Holden. “There could be a lack of buy-in to the SOP. Maybe not everyone understands why something is critical or important.”

Some dairy farms have poorly written, vague or out-of-date SOPs. “As you’re developing SOPs, they don’t necessarily need to be perfect,” said Holden. “Update and make sure they’re current.”

Sometimes SOPs are too prescriptive and require everything to be documented. SOPs that are too strict and structured may not account for workers’ understanding or skill level.

Another reason for drift is managers who are unaware of exactly what’s happening on the farm, or if managers are aware, they may be slow in correcting what’s happening.

Drift can be a significant cost for a dairy farm. Holden used the example of inadequate feeding that results in a lactating cow consuming just a few pounds under what she should be eating. “Three pounds of difference in intake translates to between three and six pounds of milk per day,” said Holden. “Five pounds of milk at $20 per hundredweight is about $1 per cow per day, which seems like a small number. In a 200-cow herd, that’s $200 per day, which amounts to $73,000 per year. For a 1,000-cow herd, that’s $500 per day or $500,000 per year.”

Little amounts add up; Holden encourages dairy farmers to do the calculations and share results with employees.

The key to fixing procedural drift is developing SOPs that hold up. “A successful SOP is one that can be used consistently across employees,” she said. “We understand it, train with it, use it and go back and monitor, use it for performance appraisals and making sure people are following procedure correctly,” she said.

The second step is to train and retrain. “Retraining with SOPs is probably the most important,” said Holden. “Most people do a great job onboarding new employees and getting people trained initially, but forget that training wears off over time.”

The third step is monitoring to understand what’s happening and how well SOPs are being followed.

Last, create a culture of compliance, which Holden said is the most difficult aspect. “It’s easier to write an SOP and train than it is to create a culture of compliance,” she said. “Make sure people understand why it’s important. A good example is timing of GnRH shots – make sure employees understand timing is critical in the cycle. It goes back to the biology of reproduction and what’s happening in the cow. If we adjust the timing, the procedure doesn’t work as effectively.”

It’s a matter of ensuring employees understand that not following procedure costs money. In many cases, employees may want to do a good job but don’t completely understand why complying is critical to the dairy’s bottom line.

In developing SOPs, begin with a draft and encourage discussion. “Getting internal review and making revisions when necessary is important for successful SOPs,” said Holden. “When employees are included in the process, they understand why procedures are important and are more likely to be compliant.” She suggested using advisors to validate and review SOPs.

Controlling procedural drift starts with monitoring small deviations that become normal over time. Developing, revising and utilizing successful SOPs are the foundation. “Include workers in revisions and make sure there’s a document and procedure that can be practically implemented,” Holden said. “Make sure people understand why something is important and the importance of consistency for animal care rather than being told ‘this is the way we do it.’”

by Sally Colby