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Labor Matters

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Experts cover today’s key dairy labor issues and offer fool-proof techniques to optimize employee performance, sat­isfaction and longevity.

Milk Smarter for Healthier and More Comfortable Workers

Jun 13, 2013

Nine ways to ensure your milking environment is all it should be to help your milking employees perform at peak levels.

ChuckSchwartau photoBy Chuck Schwartau, University of Minnesota Extension

Milking cows is like harvesting a grain crop except that it has no season, only shifts. Repetitive jobs like milking can easily be put down as tedious and of low importance, while in fact, it is among the most important tasks on the dairy farm. Milking cows harvests the product that generates the income to support the whole business. It is why you are dairying.

What are you doing on your farm to make sure that important harvest crew is motivated to do the best job possible for the cows, the business and for themselves? Workers in a relatively comfortable environment and working situation are more likely to perform at their peaks.

Growing herd sizes increase the demand on milking crews to be on their feet for long hours and reaching repeatedly to prepare udders and attach milkers.

Standing on concrete for long periods of time puts a great deal of stress on feet, legs and backs. The repeated reaches put stress on the back and shoulders for long hours. This can be especially hard on short and tall workers. Ideally you might hire milking staff based on their height and their ‘fit’ in the parlor, but that isn’t particularly practical and could be found discriminatory. Instead, look at ways to make their work place more comfortable and healthy.

Chuck Schwartau will speak at our Elite Producer Business Conference Nov. 13, 2013 at The Bellagio in Las Vegas. Learn more here.

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Have work flows designed for efficient cow flow. This not only puts more cows through the parlor in a given time, but it also lessens the time for your workers to be on their feet milking whatever number of cows you have to milk. Poor routines just slow the whole process.

2. Encourage your milking staff to wear good boots. A cheap pair of barn boots may keep feet dry, but are they really designed to be standing around for several hours? Do they have adequate arch support and fit for safe walking and comfortable standing?

3. Use rubber matting to soften the floor. Some are also designed to be safer because they lessen the chance of slipping on wet concrete.

4. Look at work breaks or job rotations to provide a break from the routine. A few minutes away from the normal task or exchanging jobs for part of a shift can work different muscles in the body, relieving some that are stressed and perhaps strengthening others that help create a healthy body.

5. Have parlors well-lit. Good lighting improves safety and morale. It helps staff do a better job of mastitis detection and improves cow flow by minimizing shadows that may spook cows.

6. Maintain comfortable temperatures in parlors whether it is with supplemental heat in the winter or good fans and ventilation in the summer. In-floor heat is not only comfortable and efficient, but it also helps keep a floor dry and less slippery. Radiant heaters can also be quite efficient by warming objects being handled rather than the air, and they, too, can help dry floors. Ventilation helps keep fresh air for workers and cows circulating in the parlor and eliminates any fumes from chemicals being used in the parlor.

7. Try to control noise. Loud and sudden noises can startle or scare cows and may become stressful to workers over long shifts. Consider where cushions and bumpers can minimize noise. Locate pumps away from the parlor and keep radios low if they are present at all. Loud radios and other sounds in the parlor can prevent staff from hearing squawking teat cups or other abnormal activities in the milking procedure.

8. Check platform height. Milking staff may come in all heights, so perfectly matching the platform height to the staff is difficult, but if the platform is lower than about 34" or higher than 40", there is a good chance it is out of the comfortable working height for most staff in your parlor. Think about options to correct improper heights. It might not be feasible, but give it a look.

9. Look at the heights of rump rails and kick rails. Having either one at an improper level may cause the milking staff to stoop more than necessary to properly see the udder or may leave the employee subject to kicking injuries because the cows’ legs may be able to reach them or pinch them between the leg and the rail.

Projects of the Upper Midwest Agriculture Safety and Health Center at the University of Minnesota and the High Plains Intermountain Center for Agricultural Health and Safety at Colorado State University are both looking at the health and safety aspects of working on dairy farms and seeking ways to make the workplace safer as well as a more enjoyable place to earn a living. Be watching those organizations and the University of Minnesota Extension Dairy webpage for updates.

--Sources for this article include HICAHS and DairyNZ.

Chuck Schwartau is an Extension Educator at the University of Minnesota. Contact him at

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