With direct input from 18 farms in northern New York and a grant from the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program, the completion rate of an alternative training system for dairy workers increased from 6% in the first year to 100% in the second year.
The project, conducted by Quality Milk Production Services (QMPS), evaluated the feasibility of e-learning modules as an alternative to face-to-face training for milker personnel.
This pilot project produced critical insight into module development, the need for ongoing learning for dairy workers and the added value of hands-on training for the dairy industry. The report, "E-Learning Training Systems as an Educational Approach for Dairy Farm Workers on Milk Quality and Parlor Performance,” is posted here.
An initial survey identified farm-specific priority training issues with 93% of farms identifying milking equipment operation and milking routine procedures as high priorities. It was the basis for the design, in 2019, of the first e-learning module focused on the seven steps of a proper milking routine, and a second module, in 2020, highlighting the five basic checks of milking equipment prior to the start of milking.
Both modules were available in English and Spanish, with video and images supporting the text that described how to perform each task and why each check was important to the health of the cows and to the quality of milk produced.
"The testing of the 2019 module influenced the design of the 2020 module and vastly improved the response and results focused on educating the milkers on proper equipment handling," says Paul D. Virkler, project leader and a veterinarian and senior Extension associate with the QMPS Canton Laboratory and Animal Health Diagnostic Center in Canton, N.Y.
The 2020 module included faster entry into the module, an added section outlining the major milking system components and functions with narrated video options, and an illustrated glossary. The participating farms provided one hour of paid time for the milkers to receive the training.
"In 2020, we addressed a literacy issue by adding an audio option to have the text read aloud for two of the module's five sections. An unexpected benefit was one Spanish-speaking employee asking to log in to the English version to hear the text so he could improve his pronunciation of the words in English," Virkler notes.
Spanish is the native language of 90 of the 95 milkers who participated in the e-learning pilot project in 2020. Twenty-nine percent of the milkers had prior training on the use of milking equipment; 46% did not milk cows before arriving at the farm. All milkers last received training more than six months prior.
“Access to strategic and focused training is an ongoing challenge in the dairy industry, even more so in 2020 with COVID-19 severely limiting in-person training events," Virkler says.
After the e-learning training, 95% percent of the milkers indicated that they would be able to check the milking equipment, and 87% reported feeling more confident that they could inform management about an equipment problem.
"Although the module results indicated the milkers had potentially gained knowledge through the training, we also wanted to know if that translated to actually performing the skills, so we piloted a model-based test in which a feature of the milking equipment specifically covered in the module was disabled," Virkler says.
Even though the majority of milkers had potentially gained knowledge about the required skills, the hands-on testing showed that in-person demonstrations of how to check the equipment was needed to enable the milkers to evaluate equipment problems.
The research team is now considering how to best incorporate model-based testing into the e-learning educational system as a tool farm managers can use as a follow-up to assure the training success in practical, hands-on application.
"This project demonstrates a need for structured training programs that support an ongoing learning culture on the farm," Virkler says. "Providing education and feedback to milkers on a regular basis promotes learning, job performance improvement, and satisfaction can reduce employee turnover, and enhances farm efficiency and production success."
Virkler would like to next develop a module that would train dairy employees to properly conduct tasks related to cow health.
Funding for the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program is supported by the New York State Legislature and administered by the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets.