Reducing antibiotic use and mastitis occurrence through employee training

A research team led by MSU researchers is working on a way to help lower the incidence of mastitis on dairy farms through a relatively simple concept: employee training.

Ron Erskine (left) checks on cows.

The U.S. dairy industry spends countless dollars each year combating and researching mastitis, a common udder infection in cows, yet mastitis continues to account for a major portion of on-farm antibiotic use. A research team led by Ron Erskine, professor in the Michigan State University (MSU) Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, is working on a way to help lower the incidence of mastitis on dairy farms through a relatively simple concept: employee training.

The research project is funded by a five-year $3 million USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) grant aimed at reducing mastitis and antibiotic use on dairy farms. Erskine’s team of research and Extension professionals from MSU joined forces with Michigan dairy industry experts and field veterinarians in addition to researchers from Pennsylvania State University, Mississippi State University and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University to ensure that the research project would encompass many facets of dairy farming.

“NIFA was targeting mastitis, which remains the most important infectious disease on dairy farms and the No. 1 reason for use of antibiotics,” Erskine said. “Along with that, they wanted some way to target programs to help reduce mastitis antibiotic use.”

A 12-farm pilot study gave researchers the opportunity to interview farm employees anonymously — they used clicker technology to answer questions about their work. That information, combined with an evaluation tool, helped clarify how to move forward with the project.

“We know the four pillars of mastitis control — how cows are milked, milking equipment maintenance, mastitis treatment detection and protocols, and proper bedding and housing — and we know what works,” Erskine said. “However, there’s a new challenge to the dairy industry, and that’s labor availability and labor development or training. During the pilot study, we did something that I don’t believe too many studies have done before, and that is talking about the needs of employees and what they want.”

A monitoring device placed on milking units on 125 farms across three states helped researchers learn how well a farm is faring with mastitis control. It lets the cows, rather than people, score the milking protocols.

“Now we go into a parlor, we put these devices on the units, and we give a farm a grade just like a 60-70-80-90 percent,” Erskine said. “You want to be an 85 or 90 percent herd, and if you are a 65 or 70 percent herd with your correct milking, that tells us we have to go in and work with the employees.”

A consistent theme emerged throughout the main study — dairy producers ranked the importance of retaining and recruiting good employees on the farm “very high” in regard to mastitis, calf health and cow treatment. Employees reported frustration with a lack of training and education.

“Many farms lack the capacity to effectively train and educate employees,” Erskine said. “The producers are aware of it and they certainly believe in it, but given the time and their comfort level, there’s a different dynamic when education occurs between a boss and employee versus someone who is a third-party teacher. That’s why sometimes teachers can have a good effect with kids when they don’t listen to their parents and vice versa.”

Reducing mastitis through employee training is not a new concept, and most farm employees go through some type of n-the-job training. As Erskine and his team’s research progressed, they found that the mechanism and procedures by which employees are trained might not be working as well as intended. Often employees are trained by other employees, opening the door for missed steps and inaccurate information, which can lead to an uptick in herd mastitis.

Even when a farmer consults with Extension dairy educators or its milk cooperative to train employees in proper milking procedures, the one-time, one-training-fits- all approach can fall short because every farm is unique, and the employees don’t usually have access to follow up with the trainers.

“If I am an employee, why would I want to listen to someone from 100 miles away telling me how I should do my job when I am milking seven to eight hours a day?” Erskine said. “We thought there has to be a better way — what we really need is a science teacher who can teach very basic things like why cows let their milk down and why we rub teats before milking and why we use germicides for disinfection.”

As the team discussed this concept, they realized that dairy farms have someone who knows the science, spends time on the farm and is respected by employees: the farm veterinarian.

“We thought: why not set up this program to essentially train the trainers how to be the science teachers?” Erskine said.

Offering on-farm employee training gives veterinarians an opportunity to expand their practice while improving rapport with their clients. Dairy producers gain more consistent milking protocols resulting in higher quality milk and fewer mastitis cases. Some dairies even have veterinarians working with their employees regularly through mandatory meetings that focus on a different aspect of herd health each month.

“We have been able to show this can work because we have had some practices where some practitioners have run with this,” Erskine said. “We supply lessons for them in English and Spanish. We have also put teaching videos online. You would be surprised how little there is out on YouTube on how to milk a cow.”

As his team nears the end of the project, Erskine is working on ways to help farms use the research on an everyday basis. During the project, Erskine formed a team of veterinarians, Extension educators and dairy industry representatives who are prepared to carry the training program concept forward with Michigan dairy farms and veterinarians.

“Our purpose is to show that this can be done,” Erskine said. “This is a demonstration to show with scientific information from the surveys that yes, producers and employees are interested in this. We need to do a better job of educating, here’s a model that’s been working. That’s where we are at this point we know logistically it works well and we have demonstrated that there are veterinarians and producers who are buying on to this.”

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