Michael Bolton
Michael Bolton
Whether you milk 50 cows or 5,000, all dairy producers should have documented Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) outlining animal care and handling practices. If you are participating in the National Dairy FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management™) program administered by the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), it’s a requirement. 
Yet some producers are hesitant to put SOPs in writing. Reasons range from “everyone is cross-trained anyway” to “only family members work with our cows.” However, new employees often are trained by the most recent person hired. And what happens when there’s a wedding or a family emergency, and you have to rely on someone with no familiarity of your farm?
Developing SOPs – and implementing employee training – helps ensure every worker knows how your animals must be cared for, optimizing animal health and well-being.
How do I start?
Writing an animal care commitment outlining your expectations for how your animals should be treated is a good first step. All employees should be aligned with your commitment, demonstrating their understanding by signing it. Have your A.I. technician, cattle hauler, nutritionist and anyone else who comes in contact with your cows sign it, too. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but everyone needs to know your animal care expectations.
What are the key SOPs?
The most important SOPs involve how you handle sick and down cows, as well as a euthanasia protocol. These are followed closely in importance by SOPs for handling calves. Employees may forget calves are babies needing gentle handling and care.
Next are procedural SOPs around milking routines and moving cows, as well as animal health protocols such as mastitis treatment, vaccination schedules, injection techniques and residue avoidance.  
How often should I review SOPs?
Protocols are “living” documents and should be reviewed at least annually to incorporate management changes. Perhaps you’ve found a solution for treating a herd health issue or incorporated new vaccines. These can be included during your annual review. 
What’s my veterinarian’s role?
Your veterinarian - being familiar with your herd and critical to managing its health - is a valuable resource and should be at the center of SOP development. That said, quality animal care starts at the top with the dairy owner and managers. Employees need to hear and see you demonstrating your commitment every day by “walking the talk.”
How often should I train employees?
Training and retraining is ongoing. When a task is performed repeatedly, there tends to be “protocol drift.” You may think employees are following your SOPs, but as new hires arrive and are trained, they may not be. Use your regular safety meetings to discuss a specific SOP. 
You also can offer regular training using the Dairy C.A.R.E. training modules on www.dairycare365.com. There are educational modules on moving down cows, euthanasia, handling youngstock and moving cows to the parlor. New modules are added regularly. They’re available in English and Spanish, and every training module concludes with a quiz to gauge employee understanding. 
Employee training can have a significant impact on your bottom line. For example, after Riverview Dairy – with 500 employees who care for thousands of cows – initiated a formal employee training program, they reduced accidents by 83%. This led to lower insurance premiums, a significant reduction in workers’ compensation claims and increased worker satisfaction. 
Implementing SOPs and training employees is the right thing to do for your animals, your employees and your operation. 
Dr. Mike Bolton is Dairy Technical Services Manager for Merck Animal Health, and has been instrumental in collaborating with industry experts to develop the Dairy Care365® training videos.