You will never need them, until you do

 When MMPA members were asked to participate in the Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) Program, Steve Foley of Millington, Michigan, was less than thrilled about the idea of more paperwork. Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) were part of the FARM process and having an SOP for each part of the dairy operation was recommended.

Steve’s daughter, Rachel Foley shared her father’s opinion, “When MMPA said we had to write SOPs I thought they were stupid, because nobody else is going to touch my cows so why would I have to write an SOP?”  At that time, there were just five people working on the 200-cow dairy farm: Rachel’s parents, Steve and Diane, her grandmother, one employee and herself. “I thought if I am the only one milking my cows, why do I have to write down what I’m doing?”

Steve made Rachel an offer. “He offered me $200 to write them and we would never have to look at them again, and so I did,” she said. “I made the most beautiful SOP book for everything I could possibly think of that happens on the farm.”

But on Saturday, August 13, 2016, Rachel was lost. She had to feed the cows because her father suddenly passed away the day before in a farm accident. Problem was, her SOP book wasn’t detailed enough to encapsulate the full process.

“At 4 in the morning, the man who fed the cows was dead and I had two nutritionists and they didn’t know how to feed my cows. I had a wonderful book of SOPs that didn’t tell me anything.” The result left Rachel unaware, “I dropped 25 percent of my milk production because the guy who did it was gone and I didn’t know how he did it.”

Ten months later Rachel is still struggling to gain back the production she lost because she doesn’t know how he did it.

Rachel was told to write an SOP so anyone could do the job. She quipped, “With all due respect, I didn’t want just anyone delivering my calves.” So, she wrote SOPs for delivering a calf but the specifics were lacking, “We never covered what happens when the calf was upside down and backwards because I didn’t want that information for the general public to read and interpret if I weren’t there to explain it. So, I didn’t write it down, which is great, until it’s not.” Today, Rachel would like to know exactly how her dad delivered a calf that was upside down and backwards.

MMPA Field Representative Supervisor, Christy Dinsmoore stressed the need for SOPs beyond meeting the requirement for the FARM program. According to Dinsmoore, day to day tasks are repeated many times and we tend to become complacent or assume that others know how to perform those tasks. They are also vital in emergency situations to keep the farm functioning.

“Rachel has a good example. But there are other examples too. I called on a small farm with two brothers. One was responsible for all the feeding and crops and the other for milking and herd health. The brother who knew about the cows was hospitalized with an illness leaving the other to care for the cows. He didn’t know who was pregnant or open, or who had been treated, or the vaccination program because it was all in his brother’s head,” Dinsmoore remarked.

There are also practical uses of SOPs: to train employees and to prevent procedural drift. They can be used for training new employees or disciplining employees because the expectations were clearly written. They can serve as a reminder and help prevent procedural drift even with experienced employees and managers.

Today Rachel’s SOPs look completely different than her first “pretty” book. “When I started researching how to write useful SOPs I found that a picture is worth a thousand words.” Rachel continued, “Some things leave way too much to interpretation but if I take a picture of how I want a particular task done, it makes all the difference.”

For instance, she told an employee to bed the calf hutches, one bale of straw for every three hutches. The employee put one full bale of straw into every third hutch. This is the kind of interpretation that Rachel tries to avoid. She also recommended keeping the SOPs to one page each so employees are willing to read them. And if you can’t keep it to one page, then break it down further.

The biggest struggle Dinsmoore has seen in writing the SOPs are actually taking the time to write them. She said MMPA has a number of templates available and the key is to do them in a format so they will be used and not just collect dust.

“MMPA field reps are a great resource for getting the basics covered but it is up to the producer how far they want to take it,” Dinsmoore stressed. DairyCare365 has online resources as well as the FARM website. Many of the vet clinics are familiar with the SOP and Herd Health Plans that meet the FARM requirements and are a great resource as well.

With the help of a “Band of Angels” the Foley family has managed to piece together the information they need to keep the farm functioning through a very emotional time. From manure hauling to pouring concrete to harvesting all their corn silage, this group of friends and former employees kept the farm going.

Rachel’s bottom line for writing SOPs is to, “Do it for your family. Do it for those who have to pick up the pieces if something happens to you.”

–Melissa Hart

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of the Michigan Milk Messenger.