by Sally Colby

Lisa Holden, Penn State associate professor of dairy science who also works in cooperative extension, spends a lot of time helping dairy farmers learn how to optimize operations.

Holden compares feeding problems on dairy farms to the Ring of Fire in the Pacific Rim, where fault lines and clashes in tectonic plates often lead to disaster. “Where are the fault lines in the feeding program?” she said. “Where do things bump up against each other and don’t quite fit together? To fix fault lines, you have to find them.”

While finding feeding faults isn’t always easy, Holden said looking at a combination of data, observations and the workforce – the most important aspect – can provide answers. Holden listed a variety of hidden sources that lead to feeding problems: ration ingredients, how many people are handling the ingredients, relief workers, day of the week, weather, expectations and instructions.

In some cases, worker performance can be easy to fix through improved communication, but not all workers are the same – they don’t all learn the same and don’t all perform the same. The question becomes whether or not they can carry out the task correctly. “Has management provided information and training, and will they perform correctly?” said Holden. “Do they have enough time to complete the task, and is help available for that task? In many cases, providing help, or walking the employee through the steps and explaining why it’s important will solve the problem. If someone doesn’t understand why it’s important for feed ingredients to go in in a certain order, they are less likely to do it. If they understand the physical aspects of the feed that determine the mix, they’re more likely to do it correctly.”

Feeding fault lines can also be due to lack of worker accountability, misunderstanding instructions, cow groups that are accidentally combined, over or under mixing, improper bunker facing, mixing times and feed inventory. Each fault, or a combination of faults, can lead to disaster in the feed bunk. Holden said the best way to determine the underlying issues that can be tough to fix is to bring issues out into the open.

“Improving communication is at the top of the list,” said Holden. “In order to do that, we need good back and forth communication, and it helps to have data.”

Unfortunately, although most dairy farms have data available, many farms don’t take advantage of using it to determine feeding faults. Communication is a two-way street. If you’re the person sending the message, it’s your responsibility to make sure the message is understood. Consider language barriers and how those can be overcome.” Holden added that in some cases, the dairy manager is using terms that are too technical in describing what needs to be done, which means the employee won’t understand the bottom line.

It’s important that employees understand the reasons for feeding procedures. In addition to instruction about the timing of feeding, employees should understand how mixing, timing and feeding schedules directly impact cow health.

Holden listed performance expectations every dairy farm can implement: Are employees expected to arrive on time, and do they know that’s an expectation? Is it important to mix ingredients in a certain order? Is it important to add ingredients in the center of the mixer? Does the employee know the correct RPM for mixing? Is feeding on time an expectation?

Dairy farm employees should be managed at both the top and the bottom. “Sometimes we know we can’t find someone else so we don’t get rid of an employee, but we still need to manage the ones we have,” said Holden. “If we don’t manage from the bottom as well as the top, we’re going to lose the top people, and that’s a huge cost to the dairy.” Holden said when good employees leave, not only does the farm have to fill a position, the knowledge that person had is lost and someone else will have to be trained.

Open communication creates an environment that enables employees to learn. The cycle of the employee doing well and being rewarded for doing well makes it more likely they’ll remain on the farm. “Part of performance management is a loop of continuous feedback; every employee every day,” said Holden. “Not because you have to do the ‘pat on the back’ thing, but because it’s an important conversation. It’s also the employee’s opportunity to provide input. Create situations where they can learn and become better.”

Although some are reluctant to do so, it’s important for managers of farms that employ Hispanic workers to learn some basic Spanish. Holden said if an employee is not properly bedding stalls despite numerous explanations of how to do that task, using photos of poorly bedded stalls and comparing them to properly bedded stalls can be a simple way to ensure the job is done correctly.

In some cases, the actual mixing equipment is the problem. Holden says dull knives, not following an ingredient list, overmixing and lack of standard operating procedure can lead to serious health problems for dairy cows. In some cases, employees might be overmixing feed to reduce particle length, which results in the entire batch being improperly mixed.

Holden said feed management data tools such TMR Tracker and FeedWatch can help keep rations consistent. Data from such tools should be shared with employees to ensure they understand the purpose and importance of ration tracking. Cameras in the barn can also be helpful in determining feeding faults. On one farm, camera footage showed that cows didn’t have consistent access to feed. “The cows came back to the barn and there was feed, but it wasn’t pushed up and a gate wasn’t open,” said Holden. “After watching the footage, the manager could see that the employee didn’t understand that a certain gate had to be open for cows to access feed bunks.”

While sending employees to programs and on-farm training is essential, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the employee understands what to do. “Training is a process, and learning is different for everyone,” said Holden. “Training is often by timing – we train them for the first two weeks then expect them to learn. But they should be learning continuously. Learning means new knowledge and new skills, being able to put those together for understanding and gaining the ability to perform the job correctly.”