Because Getting by isn’t Good Enough … Tips for Writing Standard Operating Procedures

The Darling Hotel
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Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn

Xun Kuang

Standard operating procedures (SOPs) have been a part of my life since I began working in our maternity facility at the age of 15. I have continued to create, document and execute effective SOPs for research trials in graduate school and now in my job as a reproductive consultant.

Having effective SOPs on dairy farms is important for many reasonsThey are useful for new hires as they learn procedures, are key to ensuring the wellbeing of your herd, are essential in animal welfare audits, and help to determine if treatment is needed and how to execute treatment correctly, when necessaryThe process of creating SOPs involves a fair amount of time and effort but is a valuable tool to have on hand. 

Angela Niles
Angela Niles (Author)

Who Should Write Protocols?

First and foremost, thought should be put into who writes the protocols. Managers are generally busy and may not have time to sit down for several hours just to writeFurthermore, it is crucial that someone who is “boots on the ground” helps document the protocols currently being done. 

One example of how to document protocols is to hire an intern to work alongside employees in which the intern gains hands-on experience and, in return, documents current protocols. Afterwards, a meeting with the manager and herd veterinarian is an opportunity to gain feedback and ensure everyone agrees on a proper protocol. Finalized protocols should then be translated and shared with everyone at the next team meeting.  

Putting the “What” and “How” into Your Protocols

The following two protocol examples have been borrowed from Dairy Dreams LLC, a dairy farm in Kewaunee, Wisconsin, that previously earned the Food Armor Award. Example 1 demonstrates a hands-on SOP whereas Example 2 is a part of their book of treatment SOPs. 

Example 1 – Morning Calf Feeding SOP 

Blue Clips on Hutches Indicate the Calf’s Feed Needs:

  • 2 blue clips = water and 2 scoops starter grain 
  • 1 blue clip = milk (#3) AM, water PM
  • 0 clips = milk AM & PM

Morning Feeding: There will be a printed paper next to the time clock every morning that indicates the first calf for feed setting #2 & #1. 

Pasteurizer Operating Instructions:

  1. Make sure there is milk in the milk tanks (Picture # 2) and locate the milk cart under the spigot of the stationary tank. 
  2. The (#4) handle should be pointing straight down (closed position) so the pasteurized milk will be sent to the stationary tank. 
  3. The milk tank you want to pasteurize should have its handle (#6) in the open position. 
  4. The (#3) handle should be parallel with the pipe (this is the open position). 
  1. Turn the switch (#1) to “Pasteurize.”
    a. The temperature gauge (#5) should read between 108-110°F.
  2. After the calf cart is full, close the handle for the spigot that fills the calf cart so the stationary tank will be filling during the initial feeding.
  3. Check amount of milk for each of 4 settings before starting. To do this, turn the cart to setting 1 and make sure it fills 1 bottle. Then, turn the cart to setting 2 and make sure it fills one and a half bottles and so on.

This protocol is clear and concise. The visuals help show the equipment being referenced, and the protocol is specific enough to enable newer employees to use the information as a reference after initial training. Many times it is miscommunication and/or misunderstanding of the initial steps in a protocol that may lead to problems down the road such as several days where milk temperature for calves is not in the correct range, loading too many A.I. guns at a time, etc. There are many bumps in the road that can be avoided with clear communication of what needs to be done. 

Example 2 – Pre-weaned Calf Scours SOP

If calves exhibit abnormally loose stool only:

  • Administer oral electrolytes, mixed per package instructions, via bottle between feedings of milke.
  • Record on treatment sheet in heifer office, protocol code=VITOLYTE
  • No meat withhold

If calves exhibit abnormally loose stool, are unable to stand or have difficulty rising, and no fever: 

  • Administer 1L of Lactated Ringer's solution via IV, if possible. Subcutaneous if vein is not apparent
  • Record on treatment sheet in heifer office, protocol code=RING1.1
  • No meat withhold

If symptoms do not improve, or do not fit description above, contact manager for further instruction. 

This second protocol is a great example of when an employee is supposed to make a decision-based response. The employee has three options that each have 1) treatment and time of treatment, 2) where and how to record the treatment, and 3) meat withhold information (milk withhold is not applicable in this situation but should be mentioned in cow protocols). Including all three parts to a decision-based protocol is key to ensuring consistency. Designating a specific treatment for a specific condition increases probability in which we can help an animal because both illnesses and treatments are finite. Properly recording the treatment in a specific way decreases variation in records which proves to be valuable as time goes on 

Both SOP examples demonstrate what is supposed to be done and how but for different purposes. In addition, both of these SOPs are short and to the point, requiring less room for confusion. 

What About the “Why”?

In the long run, employees will struggle complying with even the best written protocols if it is not explained “why” a protocol is the way it is. A new breeder might be diligent about the temperature in their thaw unit for GenChoice sexed semen, but they will eventually stop paying close attention unless they understand the relationship between semen and temperature during the thawing process. Similarly, maternity workers will struggle to comply with feeding colostrum within the first hour of birth unless they understand both the window of time and importance of the transfer of maternal antibodies. Thus, explaining why behind each protocol increases the likelihood the protocol will be followed.  

Make it Measurable 

There needs to be ways to measure progress and track results for employees to fully buy into SOPs for their job, even if they know the what, how and why. Breeder audits are an excellent way to make sure small details are not forgotten (usually at no extra cost to the dairy). Similarly, taking blood samples from calves is an easy way to measure employee compliance with both preparation and administration of colostrum. 

Many producers will post results for the team to see during their next meeting. Managers or team leaders need to look at the results, whether it be reports or data, and touch base with their employees in order for employees to understand the results are important to everyone as a whole. This could be a great time to give recognition and/or incentives for effectively following SOPs. 

Having effective SOPs is a valuable tool that, once completed, only requires minimal maintenance over time. Protocols need to be short and to the point, employees need to understand why protocols are made, and there needs to be a way to track results or progress in order for SOPs to effectively aid facilities in running smoothly. GENEX consultants can also be a great resource to help create particular SOPs to further assist with efficiency.

For help with writing your farm’s SOPs, contact your GENEX consultant or click the button below!

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