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A project looks at changing behaviors, and breaking the language barrier, to run farms more efficiently.

Kara Lynn Dunn

May 21, 2021

6 Min Read
soccer-themed bulletin board
SOCCER SPEAK: A soccer-themed bulletin board was designed by the New York Center for Agricultural Health and Medicine to encourage cross-shift communication at Milk Train Farm in Sprakers, N.Y. Courtesy of NYCAMH

A trial run of behavioral science-based troubleshooting on New York dairy farms shows great promise for helping farms statewide.

The trial, run by the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health, was funded through a grant by the New York Farm Viability Institute to create systems and practices that better address the challenges and opportunities associated with the dairy workforce.

Julie Sorensen, NYCAMH director, worked with three dairies to offer an alternative method of training workers who might already know how to do a work task or do it safely but, for a number of reasons, choose not to do it safely or in the correct way.

“Workers in any job can be thinking about all the things they have to do, or they may be tired and running on autopilot, so introducing anything new through additional training would require enormous mental energy that may not be readily available,” Sorensen says.

“In my experience, most workers want to do a good job. When procedures aren’t followed, there’s usually either a functional barrier to performance, or human factors that aren’t being considered.”

For example, “Well-designed, efficient systems that operate from the perspective that people aren’t often paying attention to what they’re doing, or are rushing to get a job done, are often more successful," Sorensen says. "By restructuring the environment or tasks to capture attention, or by simply making the task easier, we can often have more success in getting to the behaviors we want to see. If employees are well-trained and there is a reoccurring problem, it always makes sense to take a step back and look at the overall system."

Her process involves observation, interviews with farm personnel and the breaking down of the process to look at each step in the behavioral process. By examining this process, it is possible to identify key behaviors that can be altered and to develop solutions.

Solving sharps problem

Colleen Pank operates Milk Train Inc., an 800-head dairy farm in Sprakers, N.Y., with her son, Dustin. She was one of the three farms participating in Sorensen’s pilot project.

“One of my issues was the need for more consistent proper disposal of treatment materials," Pank says. "I do not want to find sharps left behind in the barn."

Sorensen’s team was able to make several farm visits to observe the farm’s practices and talk with Milk Train workers before COVID-19 restricted travel in 2020. Her team collaborated with Adam Sullivan, Fultonville Machine and Tool Co. project leader, to custom fabricate a rolling sharps cart that carries everything the employee needs to treat the cows.

“Julie’s team built a simple solution that I know is working," Pank says. "The design fits the need and gets used, because I am not seeing any used materials left lying around anymore."

Julie Sorensen and Colleen Pank

DYNAMIC DUO: Julie Sorensen (left), director of the New York Center for Agricultural Health and Medicine, worked with Colleen Pank, owner of Milk Train Farm in Sprakers, N.Y., to come up with alternative methods of training workers who might already know how to do a work task but, for a number of reasons, choose not to do it safely or in the correct way.

To design the cart, Sullivan researched the dimensions of such components as sharps containers and boxes of disposable gloves to make everything readily accessible with room for a side panel to pull up and over as a tabletop. It includes a procedures chart, swabs, sharps disposal container and color-coded medications.

“We wanted to make the cart lightweight, using materials that would be readily obtainable, and requiring as little complex fabrication such as bending sheet metal or welding as possible,” Sullivan says, “and to create specifications that allow a fabrication or machine shop here in the U.S. or in any country to easily build a cart for its farm.”

His specifications are in standard and metric measurements. Download the specs sheet, or to design a custom-built cart, contact Sullivan at [email protected] or 518-853-4441.

Making cross-shift communication fun

A second issue for Pank was how to enhance cross-shift communication.

Sorensen and her team observed shift changes and mapped the environment where the opportunity for communication could occur. Input from pre-COVID-19 interviews with the herd manager and the workers also informed their examination and breakdown of the cross-shift communication process.

By using this process, the team was able to design a system that would facilitate the desired communication while accounting for worker fatigue for the shift going home and the impetus of the incoming shift to start their work.

“Learning that the Milk Train workers enjoy playing soccer in their free time prompted the idea of creating a whiteboard that looks like a soccer field and designating the day shift as one team [Equipo De Dia] and the night shift another [Equipo De Noche],” Sorensen says. “The soccer connection helps make the desired work behavior fun.”

The teams earn points by using the colorful, bilingual board. Items for attention with the cows (vacas), machinery (maquinaria), materials (materiales) or other (otro) can be written into open blocks, or a box for “Nothing to Report” can be checked off. Another block is reserved for questions.

“The crews thought the board was cool," Pank says. "They play a lot of soccer on nearby fields and at a neighboring farm, and they understand the value of being a team on the field and at work. Tying the desired behavior to a personal interest area made sense, plus the board is easy to use and connects with who they are as people."

The teams’ points are recorded on a scoreboard. Pank has kept her reward for a “winning effort” simple.

“The employees who use the whiteboard receive gift cards to the local coffee and doughnut shop," she says. "It’s a simple reward for doing the right thing by remembering to write down any issues that need attention, but it is one that they appreciate."

rolling treatment cart

SOLVING SHARPS PROBLEM: This rolling treatment cart was designed and custom fabricated for Milk Train Farm by Fultonville Machine and Tool. It is seen at left in the Fultonville Machine and Tool shop, and at right loaded with supplies at the NYCAMH office.

Having first worked with NYCAMH staff on a farmwide survey to identify items for attention to bring the farm into compliance with new Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, the Milk Train workers’ familiarity with Sorensen facilitated their interest in the new project.

Anna Meyerhoff, senior bilingual agricultural safety and education coordinator for NYCAMH, facilitated the conversations.

“NYCAMH personnel understand the differences between other businesses and farming, that we run 24 hours a day," Pank says. "We are currently working with them to develop logistics that will allow us to keep running while our workers go for COVID vaccination. They know an entire shift cannot go as one unit, and we cannot use a temp agency to cover the missing half of the shift."

“The New York Farm Viability Institute funding allowed us to develop innovative behavior change strategies tailored for use with the farming community," Sorensen says. "We see unlimited application for applying creative worker-decision reengineering, not only with dairy farms, but all types of agricultural enterprises as a means of increasing safety and perhaps also increasing efficiency, and reducing time, labor and costs."

To learn more about NYCAMH and this project, with video and print presentations, contact [email protected] or call 1-800-343-7527. Sorensen’s “Incorporating Behavioral Science Insights into Agricultural Programs” presentation is online at

Dunn writes from her farm in Mannsville, N.Y.

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