1106 PD: Why reducing variation makes cents for you

Written by Jeff Reneau and Joanna Lukas Published on 10 November 2006

I am sure you have heard the old saying, “Variety is the spice of life.” Most agree that meeting new people, learning new ideas and having interesting experiences makes life more delightful. There is also good evidence that people who live fulfilling, interesting lives are more productive.

This is not the case for cows. Boring is best for cows; they respond well to routine and prefer that things stay the same. Assuming that things are being done well, cows are healthier and perform much better when variations in milking, feeding or management, for example, are minimized. Doing things consistently right all the time is quality management in the nutshell.

The outcome of quality management is a consistent, predictable result and its impact will improve the bottom line on your dairy by increasing employee and cow productivity and reducing unnecessary waste. This is why reducing variation will make cents for you.

How do your farm processes rank?
There are hundreds of individual processes on your dairy farm. How good are they? How consistently are they completed? Does it make a difference? Dr. Edward Deming, the father of the quality management movement, maintained that every process is in one of four states (see Figure 1*):

•ideal state
•threshold state
•brink of chaos
•state of chaos

A process in the ideal state is “in control” and is meeting performance expectations 100 percent of the time. “In control” meaning that the outcome of the process is predictable and, in the case of the ideal state, is meeting performance expectations all the time. The process in the threshold state is also “in control” but does not meet performance expectations 100 percent of the time.

The brink of chaos process is “out of control” because performance outcome is not always predictable, but since performance standards are lower, performance expectations are still met 100 percent of the time. A process in a state of chaos is “out of control.” The performance outcome is always unpredictable and the performance standards are not being met.

I think it is safe to say there are no dairy operations with all of its processes in the ideal state. It is obvious that the best farms will have proportionately more of the production system processes in the ideal state and fewer in the state of chaos than poorly managed farms. The objective of excellent herd management is to move each production system process toward the ideal state.

However, there are universal forces acting on every process that over time will cause deterioration, decay, wear-and-tear, breakdown and failure. This is called entropy. Turnover in employees, taking shortcuts on established protocols, wearing out of equipment and facilities and running out of critical supplies are all examples of process entropy. Without attention, all processes will eventually migrate to a state of chaos.

The only way to overcome this natural phenomenon is to continually repair the effects of process entropy. Routine repair and maintenance of equipment and facilities, as well as motivation and training of employees, are examples of process entropy repair. The more proactive and consistent the dairy is in maintaining optimum function of each process, the more likely they will succeed in reaching and maintaining the ideal state.

The greatest barriers to achieving quality management are attitude about process quality and high variation. The only way for a farm to overcome process entropy and reach the more desirable threshold and ideal states is by commitment to the concept of continuous process improvement and to reduce process variation as much as possible.

Determining process quality and consistency
A study of 1,500 upper Midwest dairies indicates that knowing the mean and the day-to-day variation is a reliable way to measure the quality of herd management processes.

Is something wrong? What’s wrong? Is it how we are doing the process or is it the consistency of how or why are doing the process? In other words, are you doing the right things right (process quality)? Or are things being done consistently right all the time (variation)? By knowing the process mean and the process variation, you can determine the answer to the above questions.

The process mean (i.e., BTSCC) indicates the ability of a process to deliver a certain quality of output. For example, an average BTSCC of 200,000 indicates the overall processes for producing quality milk is quite good. If the day-to-day BTSCC variation were 20,000, this also indicates that there is excellent consistency in the application of those processes responsible for producing quality milk.

Figure 2* indicates the relationship between day-to-day BTSCC variation and BTSCC level for the 1,500 study dairies. Since herd size will have an effect on the degree of variation, the data in this study was categorized for herds less than 100 cows and herds with greater than 100 cows. If you know your average BTSCC and the day-to-day variation, you will be able to benchmark your dairy against other Midwest dairies and determine the relative quality of the processes or the consistency with which the processes are applied on your farm.

Figure 3* shows the range in variation seen in the study herds for milk components. You can also benchmark your dairy against the variation in milk components with other Midwest dairies.

Differing from SCC, we found there was no correlation between the levels of the milk components or herd size. In general, the same conclusions can be made as with BTSCC. Low day-to-day variation is good and thought to be reflective of higher quality feeding management.

Our studies are exploring other herds, groups and individual animal’s variables to determine which can be used in a like manner to improve the quality and consistency of dairy herd management (for example, for the individual cow, activity monitoring, water intakes, etc. Or for cow groups, dry matter intake [DMI], water intake).

These kinds of techniques have been used successfully for 80 years in manufacturing and they are quality management tools to improve the timeliness and accuracy of management decisions as well as improve personnel performance. It is apparent that these techniques can be applied equally well to livestock production systems and will improve herd management and profitability. PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request.

Figures omitted but are available upon request to .

—Excerpts from 2006 Minnesota Dairy Days Proceedings

Jeff Reneau and Joanna Lukas, Department of Animal Science, University of Minnesota



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