Hard Data on Soft Science - How the
'People' Factor Affects Milk Quality

Research numbers showing how the ‘people’ factor affects milk quality

Lots of research has been dedicated to examining management practices used on dairy farms and their impact on milk quality. It’s 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 don’t 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. It’s 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 attributes—believed to be important in high-quality milk production—of 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 doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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 milk.

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 categories—CA and QD—was 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 longer term;
  • they kept better records and paid more attention to individual cows.

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 someone’s management style to improve milk quality or other aspects of farm productivity is difficult. If you’re 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 person’s 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 producer’s management style can’t 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 milk quality.

Research references:

Tarabla H.D. and K. Dodd. Associations between farmer’s 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.

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca
Author: Dr. Ann Godkin - Veterinary Scientist/OMAFRA
Creation Date: December 2000
Last Reviewed: December 2000