Hard Data on Soft Science
- How the
'People' Factor Affects Milk Quality
Research numbers showing how the people factor affects
Lots of research has been dedicated to examining
management practices used on dairy farms and their impact on milk
quality. Its not hard to find studies that describe the
beneficial role of teat dipping or treating cows with antibiotics
at dry-off time in reducing somatic cell counts (SCCs). Yet practical
experience shows that these practices dont always guarantee
low SCCs on all farms that try to implement them.
Factors beyond the simple adoption of these recommended practices
give some farms superior milk quality and less mastitis. Among these
often unmeasured factors are the personality traits, attitudes and
skills of the people working on farms. These directly affect how
well the recommended tasks will be done. Its not just what
you do, but also how well you do it. That can be difficult to capture
with conventional research.
Nevertheless, researchers have examined some of the attributesbelieved
to be important in high-quality milk productionof people working
on dairy farms. United Kingdom research in 1990 looked at numerous
factors that might affect milk quality and compared them to milk
production and SCCs of individual farms. Factors relating to farmers
attitudes and values explained more of the differences in farm performance
than management factors.
For example, not only were low bulk milk somatic cell counts (BMSCCs)
associated with using dry cow therapy, they were also more likely
to occur on farms where producers had a positive attitude towards
milking. As well, producers managing higher producing herds tended
to seek out good information about dairy farming.
More recently, researchers in the Netherlands studied producers
on 201 dairy farms for one year. They used a series of questionnaires
and interviews to gather information on farm management styles.
Based on producer responses, the researchers classified herds into
two broad management style categories. The first, the clean and
accurate (CA) group, included 117 herds. The second, the quick and
dirty (QD) group, had 84 herds.
The researchers then compared producers in the two groups to identify
areas where their management practices differed significantly. Fifty-six
per cent of the CA herds were described as having good record keeping
in comparison to only 20 per cent of those in the QD group. As well
as having good records, 89 per cent of the CA herds reviewed milk
recording data on the same day results arrived by mail. Only 79.5
per cent of QD herds acted this quickly.
Producers with CA herds were more interested in milking and in
the cows themselves. Eighty-eight per cent enjoyed milking and 94
per cent knew at least all the adult cows in their herds. Among
the QD herds, only 76 per cent of producers enjoyed milking and
only 69 per cent knew all the cows.
Hygiene standards were higher among the CA farms. Of these farms,
95 per cent had clean yards while only 58 per cent of the QD farms
did. CA farms more frequently had clean bulk tank rooms (19 per
cent versus eight per cent) and clean milking parlour walls (88
per cent versus 68 per cent) than QD farms.
While some of these practices appear to relate directly to milk
quality improvements, some do not. Those linked indirectly describe
such factors as overall farm and cow hygiene, and the producers
attention to many farm management details.
While having good records doesnt directly improve milk quality,
it does show a producer takes an interest in keeping track of what
happens on the farm. Similarly, knowing the cows doesnt reduce
mastitis. But producers who do know them are more likely to be keenly
interested and knowledgeable about cow problems.
It seems to make sense that farms considered clean and efficiently
run, in a broad number of areas, are more likely to produce high-quality
To test this relationship between management style and milk quality,
the researchers next classified the herds for milk quality using
the monthly BMSCCs. These data were used to put each herd into one
of three BMSCC groups: less than 150,000 cells per mL (low group);
between 151,000 and 250,000 cells (middle group); 251,000 to 400,000
(high group). The distribution of the two management style categoriesCA
and QDwas compared across the three BMSCC groups.
Results showed that management style, whether herds were CA or
QD, was strongly related to BMSCC category. Among the herds in the
low BMSCC group, 74 per cent had been classified CA. Among the high
BMSCC herds, 73 per cent were classed as QD.
Low-BMSCC herds were managed by producers who had these characteristics:
- they were younger;
- they had children with a higher education level;
- they were more eager to invest to improve their farms for the
- they kept better records and paid more attention to individual
Not surprisingly, these producers also showed a higher rate of
adoption of effective mastitis control practices.
These results would seem to add up. This research attempts to quantify
something common sense and farm experience tells us to be true.
After reading about this research and examining the factors used
to classify herds as CA or QD, many of us can see the characteristics
of the producers themselves are expressed in the practices and outcomes
measured on the farm. And one of these outcomes is milk quality.
Changing someones management style to improve milk quality
or other aspects of farm productivity is difficult. If youre
an adviser or an employer, changing overall farm management requires
more than simply convincing a producer or an employee to adopt one
or two practices. And, from experience and frustration, many farm
advisers and employers recognize this problem.
Change may be possible if producers or employees can be helped
to recognize the risks their management style poses to farm productivity
and milk quality. Recognizing a persons strengths and weaknesses,
and the impact these can have on his or her ability to do certain
tasks, might allow some tailoring of recommendations.
For example, producers whose skills are more in line with those
of the QD management style, described in the Dutch research, need
precise, careful descriptions or demonstrations of the practices
they are being asked to implement. They will need to know exactly
how to do required tasks and how often. More frequent monitoring
of how these tasks are performed should be routinely incorporated
into the overall program.
Sometimes an individual producers management style cant
be changed. Introducing a new management style may only be possible
when farm ownership changes, such as when a son or daughter takes
over a family operation.
Occasionally producers can be helped to recognize their own strengths
and weaknesses in management style. They can then hire employees
who can apply their own strengths to tasks that best suit them.
Employers need to recognize the CA and QD styles among their employees
and assign them to farm tasks accordingly. Employing CA individuals
as milkers, for example, makes excellent sense.
Farm advisers can watch for and take advantage of opportunities
for changing management styles when they arise. By recognizing an
unchanging situation for what it is, they can avoid the frustration
of the seeming failure of recommendations that have worked elsewhere,
but under different management style conditions.
Years ago, the famous veterinarian Dr. Jim Jarrett said, "mastitis
is a disease of man, the signs of which are seen in the cow."
Research into the skills, attitudes and other traits of people working
on dairy farms, coupled with our own common sense experiences, supports
this view. Frustrating milk quality problems can best be remedied
by examining and addressing problems not only with the cows and
the milking equipment, but with the producer too.
A QD management style is no excuse for continued poor milk quality.
Identifying the management style on a particular farm is simply
another tool for advisers and employers. They can use it to fine
tune what advice to give, and how and when to give it, to create
the best possible chance of success of producing high-quality milk.
Poor milk quality test results, such as elevated BMSCCs or BactoScan
counts, are signs of a problem with management style. Only by identifying
this underlying limitation can we make further strides to improve
Tarabla H.D. and K. Dodd. Associations between farmers
personal characteristics, management practices and farm performance.
British Veterinary Journal (1990) 146: 157.
Barkema H.W., J.D. Van der Ploeg, Y.H. Schukken, T.J.G.M. Lam, G.
Benedictus and A. Brand. Management style and its association with
bulk milk somatic cell count and incidence rate of clinical mastitis.
Journal of Dairy Science (1999) 82:1655.
This article first appeared in the December 2000 Ruminations column
of the Ontario Milk Producer magazine.