Designing standard operating procedures to help workers do their jobs

What should a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) look like? It depends on the process that you are trying to describe. There are many different ways to present an SOP. Your goal as a dairy manager or advisor is to create a written document that helps workers to do their jobs accurately and consistently.

SOP Formats

SOPs must be easy to read, easy to understand, up-to-date, and detailed enough to be useful. It is critical to select an appropriate format so that workers can quickly interpret the SOP steps and move on to the important work of getting the job done.

Two factors strongly influence the type of format that is best suited for the procedure. The first is the number of steps that are required to complete the process. Sometimes people write procedures in a simple, numbered step-by-step fashion. This is sufficient for very short and straightforward procedures, but lengthy procedures can quickly become cumbersome in such a format.

The second factor influencing which format to use is the presence of steps that require one or more decisions by the worker. While most formats can be designed to handle decision steps, a specialized format known as the flowchart is best suited for decision-based, or diagnostic, procedures.

Simple Steps

The simple steps procedure is just what its name implies. This very easy to write SOP format is most useful for short, repetitive procedures that do not require decisions. Equipment set-up and cleaning, calf feeding, free stall maintenance and many other straightforward processes lend themselves to the simple steps format. Figure 1 is an example SOP for freestall maintenance.

Figure 1 - example simple step SOP

Freestall Maintenance
Effective date: 10/1/2001
Developed by: Milking staff

Key Objectives:

  • Clean stalls to create a sanitary bed for cows to lie on
  • Distribute bedding evenly to promote cow comfort
  • Freestall rake is needed for this job
  • Freestall maintenance should be completed immediately after a group of cows is moved to the holding area
  • The Barn Operator is responsible for freestall maintenance
  1. Scrape any manure or wet bedding from the freestall beds into the alley.
  2. Rake bedding from front of the freestall beds toward the back.
  3. Evenly distribute the bedding so that at least 1 inch of material covers all parts of the bed.
  4. Observe free stall beds, divider loops, and other parts of the barn for any foreign objects, loose bolts, or other unusual conditions.
  5. Return freestall rake to storage area at end of barn.
  6. Write any unusual observations or repairs needed in the milking shift notebook.

There are only six steps in this procedure. It would suffice in a situation where new barn operators were given orientation and training. Without such training they wouldn’t know critical details such as where the freestall rake and milking shift notebook are stored. Note that there are no decisions in this procedure and that it is written at a low level of detail. One could easily add more detailed steps and explanations that would quickly lengthen the procedure. Exact specification about how the freestall should be groomed may be important on some farms, and they may choose to use a more detail-oriented format.

Hierarchical Steps

The hierarchical format is very useful for procedures that require a lot of details. Hierarchical steps is simply a variation of the simple steps format that includes sub-steps under main steps. The sub-steps allow you to include more details about how to complete a main step. Figure 2 is an example milking SOP that breaks the operation down into main steps and sub-steps.

Figure 2 - example hierarchical SOP

Milking Procedure
Effective date: 6/2/02
Developed by: Parlor Staff

Key Objectives:

  • Provide a comfortable and stress-free environment for the cows.
  • Provide a comfortable, consistent, and efficient procedure for workers.
  • Apply the milker within 60 seconds of stripping to clean, dry teats.
  • Begin milking at 5 AM, and 5 PM. Be prepared to start at these times.

1. Make sure cows are in place in milking stalls.

  • a. Check cow ID system
2. Wipe soil and manure, if excessive, off the first cow’s udder, proceed to do same to udders of cows 2, 3, 4, and 5.

3. Apply predip (1.0% iodine) solution, using the wand, to each teat on cows 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

  • a. Make sure that iodine is applied to at least 75% of the teat
  • b Pay attention to teats on the far side (away from the pit).
  • c.Predip should contact cow for 40 seconds prior to drying with a towel
4. Dry each teat on cow 1 using a fresh cloth towel for each cow, then hand-milk 2 squirts of milk from each teat on cow 1.
  • a.Squirt onto concrete to see the milk. If abnormal, then follow protocol for “If Mastitis is Detected.”
  • b.If milk is clean, then move to step 5.

5.Apply four teat cups to the udder.

  • a.Adjust the milking unit and automatic detacher.
6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 for cow 2, then cow 3, cow 4, and cow 5.
7. Start protocol (steps 1 through 6) with cows 6 through 10.

8. When detachers are off, check to see that cows are milked out.

  • a.If not done milking, then attach unit again.
  • b.If they are done, then apply post dip to all cows with complete coverage of each teat.
9. Release cows from parlor.

Note that in main step three there are sub-steps a, b, and c that must be followed in order to complete the main step correctly. Also note that in main steps four and eight, the sub-steps are actually alternatives for a decision. Hierarchical steps can handle basic decision points using an “if…then” type of structure. This format is good for a straightforward process that contains a lot of steps and needs to be explained in significant detail. Other formats, however, are preferred for procedures that can be broken down into shorter subroutines.

Graphic Format

The graphic format incorporates some type of visual aid with the written text in order to help the reader understand. Since the visual aid could be any number of different designs, it is not possible to provide an example that would represent them all. Figure 3 is a feeding SOP that is broken down into four shorter sub-routines. The arrows and boxes simply serve to guide the user through the process.

One of the advantages of using graphics with standard operating procedures is that it breaks up large blocks of text. The last thing a worker wants to do is wade through a large block of text or scan through 30 steps in a procedure in order to find the help he or she needs. Using the graphic format allows a long procedure to be broken up into logical, shorter sub-procedures. This limits the number of steps and helps workers to easily remember them.

Figure 3 - example graphical SOP

Feeding the Lactating Cows
Effective Date: October 7, 2000
Developed by: Feeding Crew

Key Objectives:

  • Feed a well-mixed, consistent, and accurate ration
  • Feed on time
  • Monitor group intake
  1. Sweep feed refusals to end of feed bunk.
  2. Scoop feed refusals into TMR mixer.
  3. Record weight of feed refusals in feeder notebook
  4. Distribute feed refusals in bunk at steer pen.
  1. Check feeder notebook for amount of ingredients to mix
  2. Add protein concentrate from bin #1. Record lbs added in feeder notebook.
  3. Add ground corn from bin #2. Record lbs added in feeder notebook.
  4. Add corn silage from bunker #1. Record lbs added in feeder notebook.
  5. Add haylage from bunker #2. Record lbs added in feeder notebook.
  1. Mix feed for exactly 5 minutes.
  2. Do not move tractor while mixer is running.
  3. Record total aumount or feed in mixer in feeder notebook
  1. Distribute feed evenly along entire length of feedbunk.
  2. Record time in feeder notebook
  3. Return tractor and mixer to euqipment shed

Photo Format

Another very useful format for SOPs is the photo format. This is especially useful for those producers with a workforce that speaks different languages. The concept is simply to combine photo images that illustrate each step with text that explains how to complete it. Not only does this help to overcome language barriers, but it also helps people who tend to be visual learners to understand the step. The photo format may include as much or as little detail as necessary. The explanatory text may be in simple or hierarchical format. Figure 4 is a basic photo format SOP that use pictures and simple steps text to illustrate milking preparation.

Figure 4 - example photographical SOP

Milking Procedure
Effective date: 6/2/02
Developed by: Parlor Staff

Key Objectives:

  • Provide a comfortable and stress-free environment for the cows.
  • Provide a comfortable, consistent, and efficient procedure for workers.
  • Apply the milker within 60 seconds of stripping to clean, dry teats.


1. Apply predip solution to each teat using the dip wand

2. Strip 3 streams of milk from each teat.

  • Check for any abnormal milk.


3. Carefully clean and dry each teat using a fresh towel for each cow.

  • Pay special attention to thoroughly cleaning the teatends.


4.Attach milking unit and adjust so that it hangs evenly




It is surprisingly easy to use the photo format. Some organizations offer customizable SOP kits that allow you to choose from a selection of photographs and text as you put together your own procedure. In this age of powerful computers and digital cameras, however, it is very easy to use photo images from your own farm. Many farm owners have their own digital camera or one of their farm advisors is quite likely to have one. If digital camera is not available, simply use a film camera to take the pictures and have the film developed in a digital format. Then the digital pictures can be easily inserted into a computer document. An even more low-tech approach would be to take normal pictures (make sure you take close-up images) and physically cut and paste them into an SOP document next to the appropriate text.

Flow Charts

The last SOP format we will consider is the flowchart. This format is especially adapted to procedures that require decision-making. They will help even an inexperienced worker to proceed through one or a series of decisions in order to arrive at the correct steps for a given situation. Think about the many activities that must be carried out on a dairy farm that require good decision-making.

  • How should I handle a cow with abnormal milk?
  • What should I do if I see a cow or calf that looks sick?
  • What do I do if I think a cow is in heat, but I’m not sure
  • What should I do with a newborn calf?
  • Should I assist or call for help with this calving cow?

Flowchart SOPs can define the problem-solving or diagnostic process that a worker should follow in each of the above circumstances. This will increase the consistency of decisions that are made regardless of who is carrying out the process. In this way, effective, scientific, and repeatable techniques can be applied to each problem, and the results are more likely to be positive than when workers are forced to figure it out for themselves. Figure 5 is a very basic flowchart that provides directions on how to handle a newborn calf. Note that all calves get two quarts of colostrum, but on this farm, male and female calves follow very different routes after that.

Figure 5 - example flow chart SOP

Each of the different shapes in the flowchart carries a different meaning. Rectangles with rounded corners indicate beginning and ending points. Regular rectangles are action blocks, some kind of work is performed inside a rectangle. Diamonds indicate that a decision must be made. Diamonds must always have at least two arrows leading away from them. These arrow must be labeled with the possible answers to the question in the diamond. In this case the possible answers to the question, “Sex of calf?” are “male,” or “female.” In many cases the answers will be “yes” or “no,” but there could also be three or more answers such as: “greater than 104 degrees,” “between 99 and 104 degrees,” and “less than 99 degrees.”

Writing Tips

Most steps in procedures are active commands that tell someone how to complete a step. Writing them as such will help to make procedure steps clear and concise. Active commands usually begin with a verb that indicates an action. Words such as wipe, spray, move, fill, empty, mix, open, close, lift, check, remove, attach, clean, etc. may all be used as action verbs. Consider this example:

Wordy - The bottle that you used to feed the newborn calf should be put in the sink for cleaning.

Concise - Put the used colostrum bottle in the sink for cleaning.

Remember, your goal is to produce a document that will help the worker to complete a job consistently and well. Simple, brief, and straightforward writing is the best way to achieve that goal.

There are a few other elements in standard operating procedures that help everyone to avoid confusion. These include a title, a date, and an indication of who is responsible for the SOP. All SOPs should have a title that is descriptive of the content, yet brief.

Procedures should also have a date that indicates when they become effective. This will help to eliminate confusion when revisions to the procedures are made. When a procedure is revised, a good policy is to provide everyone with a copy of the new document and ask them to destroy their old version. One copy of the old version should be kept on file, however.

Finally, you should include a line indicating who is responsible for developing an SOP. This may be a point of pride for many workers. When an individual or team sees their name on a written document, there is often a strong desire to see it succeed.


Don’t fall into the trap of using only the simple steps format to write standard operating procedures. You will quickly find that many of them will get very long and cumbersome. Instead, use hierarchical steps format to simplify the procedures with steps and sub-steps, or use a graphic design to break a long procedure into several shorter processes. If you have a procedure with a lot of decisions, consider using the flowchart format. Although it might take some creative thinking to design your flowchart, the result is likely to be a much more useful and understandable document. Regardless of which format you choose, it is important to make your SOPs clear, accurate and easy to use.


Stup, R.E. (2001). Standard operating procedures: A writing guide. University Park, PA: Penn State Extension publication.

Wieringa, D., C. Moore, and V. Barnes. (1998). Procedure writing: Principles and practices. Columbus, Ohio: Battelle Press.


Richard Stup

Richard Stup
3 articles

Branch Manager and Business Consultant at  AgChoice Farm Credit 

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AgChoice Farm Credit

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