Video monitoring enables California dairy to pay milkers based on performance
One of the first dairies in California to use automated video monitoring has found a unique way to apply the daily data it is capturing to manage its parlor and to incentivize employees. The dairy’s owner, EJ DeJong of Hanford, California, initially wanted to use video monitoring to track individual cow behavior and activity. Someday he says that may still be possible, but right now it’s too cost-prohibitive for his dairy to make it realistic. So when California-based video monitoring company Cattle Care suggested he use monitoring in his parlor where he already had cameras and start-up would require zero upfront investment, he was game to try it out.
“I'd say for anyone that's frustrated with their milk barn labor, who just can't seem to figure it out or get a grip on it, I think this is a helpful tool,” DeJong says.
For more than a year now, DeJong has been paying milkers an hourly wage plus incentivizing his employees to meet specific milk production and quality goals. Receiving bonus pay on DeJong’s dairy is based on what automated video monitoring finds happens from shift to shift in the milk barn.
Cattle Care’s A.I. is watching for proper adherence to milking protocols such as post-dipping every cow, aggressive behavior towards cows and excessive use of manual detaching, among other things. The data the cloud-based system finds goes into calculating bonus pay for the milking shifts that do exceptional work.
“I already had a bonus system,” DeJong says. “So what we ended up doing was just reducing my existing bonus program and adding this performance-based component to it. And we want them to get the bonus because we all know that means they’re doing a great job.
For example, a parlor employee on DeJong’s dairy could be paid a bonus of $7, $10.50, or $14 per day based on his or her shift’s performance each day during a two-week pay period. DeJong’s incentive system prioritizes parlor efficiency and milking cows in under 7 hours and 15 minutes without using manual detaches to cross the finish line quicker. For example, if employees use manual detaching too frequently (more than 15 percent of cows), they lose the potential to earn the highest bonus level possible. They also must be sticking to the proper order in the cow prepping routine, post-dipping every cow, and spraying off milking units properly, among other protocols.
This table illustrates the bonus pay structure for EJ DeJong’s milking crews. For a shift to earn the highest bonus possible, the average milking time for their shift must be less than 7 hours and 15 minutes. They must also have no reported animal welfare cases. Plus, the number of cows on which they use a manual detach to finish milking must be less than 15 percent of cows. If they accomplish all of these goals during the pay period, they receive an additional $14 bonus per day for each shift they worked during that pay period. The blue boxes highlight that employees on the “EastPit evening shift” achieved all of these goals and earned an extra $441 in their paycheck during this past March. Other daily bonus pay levels can be achieved for lesser accomplishments of the same goals. Any detected animal welfare case negates the bonus for the entire shift and would trigger disciplinary action for the employee involved.
The old system paid workers a bonus per cow milked if the dairy as a whole had decent milk quality, shifts ended on time, and not too many cows ended up in the wrong group after milking.
“It encompassed some important points, but it didn’t cover compliance or routine because it was hard to accurately and repeatedly measure. Cattle Care has changed our ability to measure, and reward, for performance.”
The new bonus system has proved more effective than the old one. DeJong says his parlor manager would talk to employees about improvement under the old system, but without any financial incentive to improve it was difficult to see progress. Also, he says it was hard to discipline employees and still have them show up for work the next day. The new incentive system has made improvement more carrot than stick in its approach. And the net cost of the bonus system has been neutral for the dairy.
“Before if we talked to them they would fix it for two weeks, but once we put a performance-based incentive in place, we started seeing a noticeable, consistent, improvement in compliance,” DeJong says.
DeJong has two dairies using the automated video monitoring system. One has 5,000 cows milked in two double-40 parallel parlors and one with 2,000 cows milked in a double-25 parallel parlor. One of the biggest benefits of the system in both parlors has been consistent milk production along with milk quality.
“Our daily milk production is much more consistent than it used to be,” DeJong says. “In the past, something would happen and we’d be two hours late finishing a shift. Then somehow, magically overnight, we’d be on time the next morning. We wouldn’t question it because we thought, ‘At least we’re on time.’ But we were losing milk.”
DeJong says he learned that milkers were using manual detaching more frequently in such situations to make up milking time. That led to lost milk in the tank.
This automated video capture identified when a parlor employee initiated a manual detach for four milking cows during a milking shift. Through the use of automated video parlor monitoring, dairyman EJ DeJong discovered workers would use manual detach more often than he would like them to in order to shorten the duration of their milking shifts. On his dairy, manual detach should be used on fewer than 15 percent of cows in order to earn the dairy’s highest level of bonus pay.
“Now if we get behind it might take an extra day or two to get caught up because the milkers themselves are concerned about using manual detaching too much and not skipping protocols. It takes longer to get caught up, but milk production stays the same and we don’t lose three pounds of milk per cow in one day.”
This chart shows the change in the use of manual detach among employees before and after the installation of Cattle Care last November.
Another thing he is sure of now is the proper treatment of animals in the parlor. Any aggressive treatment towards cows not only voids any bonus for the entire shift but also leads to immediate disciplinary action for the offending employee. If such behavior were to occur, DeJong would get a text message alerting him to the need to immediately review the video capture of the event. Instances of mistreatment are “virtually zero,” DeJong says.
“If it ever does happen, we talk to the employee and find out what’s going on,” DeJong says. “We’ve had to let someone go because of behavior we caught on camera, but if that’s how they are going to treat animals, we don’t want them working for us.”
Overall, DeJong says having the video monitoring system paired with incentive-based pay has made it easier and more effective to talk to employees about making improvements in milking performance.
“They understand that their shift is completely in control of getting that extra bonus money,” he says. “We are not taking anything away from them. They better understand what threshold they didn’t meet and how their behavior contributed to that. Once they understand that link, it becomes more of a motivation to change future performance.”
Cattle Care founder Artiom Timanov says six other dairies are using a similar system based on his company’s services. Dairies can customize the different milker activities that factor into their incentivize program.
“At some point, dairies thought they needed to connect employee bonuses with somatic cell counts because it seems logical,” Timanov says. “But somatic cell count is multifactorial. Employees are rightfully not happy when somatic cell counts increase and it isn’t related to something happening in the parlor. That leads to employees thinking bonuses are not fair and not caring any more. However, incentive-based pay makes it so milkers are rewarded for their own actions. They get bonuses if they follow procedures and do what the dairy owner wants.”
California dairyman EJ DeJong (tallest on the back row) with his managers and one of his milking crews.
DeJong admits parlor management, even with the system, still requires managing people.
“People still have good days and bad days,” DeJong says. “Some shifts respond better to incentive-based pay than others, and some are more consistent in earning a bonus than others. But that’s human nature.”
DeJong believes removing variability in the milk barn makes chasing the dairy’s goals towards increased milk production and milk quality easier.
“We’re having our best year ever this year for milk production,” DeJong says. “I definitely think the consistency in our milk barn is a contributing factor to that.”
Note: The author is an investor in and adviser to Cattle Care.