Human factors

In day-to-day modern dairy cow management, how farm staff members relate to the dairy herd can have a significant effect on productivity and welfare. Minimising stress levels in dairy cows is paramount and effective livestock handling techniques will promote a willingness to be milked and good milk let-down. The quiet handling of cattle by farm staff will be apparent from how easily cows enter the parlour and how well they react to other people. Good stockmanship and careful observation for any signs of unease or illness will mean that problems are dealt with before they become too serious or irreversible.

Milking staff in particular need to have an understanding of the importance of good hygiene, most importantly during the milking process where mastitis pathogens are easily spread from quarter-to-quarter and cow-to-cow, but also ensuring bedding materials are kept clean, or allowing cattle to walk at their own speed to avoid excessive udder soiling from muddy tracks when at grazing.

Ideally, the number of staff responsible for milking - including any relief staff - should be kept to a minimum to restrict the effects of poor milking habits and disease spread. Those staff members responsible for activities outside the parlour, such as feeding or bedding should preferably not be allowed to milk, as they carry a greater risk of cross-contaminating cows with environmental pathogens.

In the parlour, good basic milking techniques like effective and thorough teat washing, dipping and spraying and drying teats properly before cluster unit attachment are essential to promote good udder and teat health, controlling the spread of mastitis pathogens. Milking staff should wear disposable gloves.

Milking staff need to be able to follow routines and understand the value of keeping protective clothing clean, particularly the cleanliness and condition of their gloves. A simple and effective means of helping to guarantee good in-parlour hygiene where staff are employed to milk is to set out a written Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) which clearly defines, for example, pre-milking preparation, the required timings of pre-dip chemicals and lag-times between wiping teats and attaching cluster units, and hygiene rules for dipping cluster units in disinfectant after milking high SCC or mastitic cows. The SOP should cover any process or action occurring in the parlour which may promote the spread of pathogens.

Approaches to mastitis treatment differ from farm-to-farm and even between staff on a single farm; some milkers may wait in sub-acute cases to see how the illness develops and if a self-cure is likely, while others treat as soon as symptoms occur. Where a number of staff members are responsible for milking and treating ill cows it may be useful to include a Standard Operating Procedure protocol for the treatment of clinically-affected cows.

Overlooked areas of milking technique can include applying/removing cluster units quickly and 'squarely' - ensuring the vacuum is removed before removing the units - avoiding the incidence of teat end vacuum fluctuations that can lead to impact forces that are responsible for many mastitis infections, and the minimised use of 'machine stripping', where serious overmilking problems and teat end damage can occur.