High employee turnover can lead to inconsistent animal production or potentially lower quality products, both meat and milk. "How is this possible?" asks Heidi Carroll, SDSU Extension Livestock Stewardship Extension Associate.
"Is it because cattle get accustomed to routines and the people who perform tasks in their home environment? Familiarity does minimize stress, which promotes good health and production," Carroll said. "The animals become comfortable eating and gaining weight or in the parlor letting milk down. Keep in mind that cattle are able to identify individual handlers and remember positive and negative handling experiences that impact milk production and subsequent behavior during handling."
Therefore, Carroll said training new employees can cause inconsistence in job protocol performance, until tasks are mastered, which impacts the quality of the product produced.
"In times of high employee turnover, dairy managers may potentially see a drop in milk production or quality as cows adjust to new individuals. This is why employee training should be a priority to be able to maintain consistent procedures for the cattle," she said.
She references a 2014 study that showed handlers to be the top factor to establish adequate cattle flow on dairies, above facilities, animals, and the environment. "In the same study, cows of producers who had participated in stockmanship training produced around 1,782 pounds more milk per lactation than cows of those who had not completed the training.
"Even though stockmanship training had a positive impact, the major barriers to employee training are time limitations and language," Carroll said. "Managers should be proactive to implement thorough employee training during times of employee turnover to minimize losses."
Beef cattle operations
On the other hand, in beef cattle operations, signs of dropped production and increased illness or injuries from additional stress on cattle can show up when a new individual handles them differently due to employee turnover.
"According to findings in a 2012 study, training programs on best animal welfare practices and supervision of pre-slaughter management procedures lowered the percentage of carcasses downgraded due to severe bruising," Carroll said. "However, a need to maintain constant follow-up of employee performance was apparent as suggested by a subsequent increase in downgraded carcasses six months following training."
She added that similar decreases in carcass bruising were observed when best management practices were adopted during sorting and load out procedures such as improvements in handling, eliminating shouting and aggressive handling, such as hits and electric prodding.
Tips to achieve consistent high quality products:
Establish an employee training program promoting animal well-being and low-stress handling methods. This could include quality assurance trainings (BQA or DACQA), stockmanship and handling demonstrations, or task-specific training (milking, feeding, or vaccination protocols).
Invest in employee performance reviews providing positive feedback on tasks done well and providing re-training on tasks that do not meet managerial expectations. These do not need to be formal, just take advantage of daily moments to give praise, reinforce or correct performance demonstrating desired techniques.
Utilize written standard operating procedures (SOPs) and make them readily accessible to employees so tasks are performed the same and can be easily referenced. Remember to provide SOPs in employees' first language for clear understanding of directions.
Hold regular employee meetings with open communication about the goals for the farm and animal productivity. Connect each employee's role into how they will help achieve these goals.
Celebrate achievement of goals with employees when they are met.
"Establishing ways to maintain consistency on your operation during employee turnover will help promote high quality milk and meat products for our food supply," Carroll said.
For cattle managers working with Spanish-speaking employees, or those considering hiring Spanish-speaking employees, further discussion on cultural considerations can be found at the iGrow Dairy Community.