Standard operating procedures: Tools for making constant improvements

Success with SOPs depends on a participative management style Dairy productivity and profitability depend on manufacturing processes Process management definitions Variation in dairy systems limits productivity Results-oriented SOP planning


Dairy farms are manufacturing operations. They take raw materials (feedstuffs, water, air), process the materials using their assets (cows, equipment, labor), and sell a product (milk) that is more valuable than the original raw materials. In this respect, dairy farms are value-adding businesses just like any other manufacturing operation. Therefore, just like many other successful manufacturing businesses, dairies can make dramatic and lasting improvements to their productivity and profitability by applying a pro-active, quality-driven management approach such as TQM, Six Sigma, or ISO 9001.

The central idea of quality management is to improve inputs and manufacturing processes to the greatest extent possible so that defects in the finished products do not occur. In dairy terms, examples of defects could include the following: poor quality forages caused by equipment breakdown, mastitis cases caused by improper sanitation, production loss caused by errors in feed formulation, or even excess employee turnover caused by poor supervisory practices.

Management, workers, and external advisors or suppliers work together in a quality management system as they strive to improve the farm’s processes. Milking, feeding, breeding, calf care, and all the other daily work that ultimately leads to producing milk are the dairy farm’s processes. This is where standard operating procedures (SOPs) enter the picture. SOPs define exactly how the farm’s processes should be completed. Because management, workers, and advisors all help create and manage SOP’s, they serve as a focal point where all can contribute to continuous improvement of work processes.

Standard operating procedures are a means to remove variation in work performance caused by people completing the same work processes in different ways. We shall see that variation in the performance of work processes is a very important problem for dairy farms. Variation in performance leads to reduced milk production, poor milk quality, imbalances in feeding programs, reduced reproductive performance, and a host of other problems that ultimately diminish dairy farm productivity and profitability.


In order to fully understand the problems associated with variation and the opportunities available by controlling variation in work processes, we must first clarify some terms.

Process. A process is a set of actions that a person or group of people must perform in order to complete a job. A standard operating procedure usually describes the steps that people should use to complete the process. Thus, on a dairy farm, prepping and attaching milking units to cows is a process. Cleaning the bulk tank is a process. Measuring, loading, and mixing feed ingredients for a total mixed ration is another example of a process.

Process control is the art and science of managing a process so that variation in performance is reduced. Process control involves standardizing a procedure so that all workers are expected to complete it in the same way, training all workers in proper completion of the procedure, and monitoring the results so that corrections can be made.

Monitoring. For our purposes, we want to consider monitoring in terms of standard operating procedures. Monitoring a process means to regularly measure performance results so that we can answer two questions: One, is the procedure being followed? And two, is the procedure designed correctly to achieve the results that we want?

Feedback. Workers cannot control and improve their performance unless they receive information about how they are doing. This information is called performance feedback. Feedback can come from a supervisor or it can come from monitoring systems that provide numbers or graphic information about work results. In any case, the feedback needs to be in a form that the employee can understand and relate to his own performance. A combination of regular numerical feedback and supervisor feedback is usually best.

Variation is strictly defined as deviation away from a mean or average value. For our purposes, let’s consider the average value as equal to the goal we want to achieve in the process under consideration. For example, if our goal is to have cows enter the dry period with a body condition score of 3.5, then any scores higher or lower than 3.5 would be unwanted variation.

Variation In Processes

Many people are confused about why variation should be considered such an important performance problem for a dairy farm. We know from both experience and research that variation is harmful to cows. They perform at their best when things are the same from day to day. Consider the following example of variation.

Suppose that we have a five-point scale to assess the degree of mixing in a totally mixed ration that was delivered to lactating cows. A score of five indicates that all ingredients are thoroughly blended, but the ration is over-mixed because particle length is reduced so that the ration is too fine to support good rumen function. A score of one indicates that the ingredients are not properly blended together and the cow can easily pick and choose which grains or forages she would like to eat. A score of three indicates that the ingredients are properly blended and the particle length is appropriate. Both high and low scores decrease productivity while a score of three is optimal.

One week’s degree of mixing scores for Farm A are shown in the chart below. Because different people mixed the ration on different days and there was a lack of standardization and training for the mixing process, the mixing scores for Farm A vary from five down to two.


  • How would cows perform in this environment?
  • The scores would average to about three, is this acceptable?

Let’s consider another farm that uses standard operating procedures to control the mixing process and reduce variation. The graph below shows degree of mixing scores for Farm B. Farm B’s degree of mixing scores for the same week vary from 2.5 at the lowest to 3.25 at the highest.


  • If all other factors are the same, won’t the cows on Farm B outperform those on Farm A?
  • How would you like your cows to be fed, consistently or variably?

Let’s consider another logical example that strengthens the case for controlling variation in dairy processes. Suppose that on a given farm, second lactation animals usually enter the milking herd and reach an average peak milk yield of 105 pounds per day. The herdsperson reviews records and happens to notice that recently second lactation cows are only peaking at 85 pounds per day. Upon further investigation, he discovers that these cows calved in early August.

August is a hot month where the farm is located. In addition, a fan in the maternity pen was broken at the time and was not replaced until late in August. This is an obvious case where variation away from the average indicated a definite problem in the maternity pen management system. The source of variation, the broken fan, led to decreased production that will continue to affect performance far into the future.

We can see logically that variation in how processes are carried out can cause serious losses in productivity. Let’s consider some research into dairy systems that measured the impact of variation.

The Milking Process

In 1990 Danish researchers reported on the effects of variation in the preparation and milking procedure used on lactating cows (Rasmussen, 1990). In their research they used a conventional tie-stall facility and divided the herd into two groups, one on each side of the barn. The cows were similarly distributed in age. The stalls were managed in the same way on each side of the barn, and all cows were fed the same ration. The only difference between the two groups was that one side was milked with a traditional stall-barn routine, while the other side was milked with a standardized routine. The traditional stall-barn routine included significant variation in time from when cows were prepped until units were attached. In the standardized routine cows were consistently prepped, there was very little variation in time from the beginning of stimulation to unit attachment.

The standardized milking routine was comfortable for milkers and easy to introduce to new employees. Cows milked per hour and udder health measures were nearly identical for the standardized and traditional (or more variable) routine. Most importantly, the cows milked with the standardized routine yielded 10.7% more milk over the course of a lactation.

The comparison of standardized and variable milking routines points out the opportunity for increased productivity with standardization. We mustn’t overlook, however, the nature of mastitis infections. There is a tremendous amount of research demonstrating that teats must be clean and dry in order to prevent mastitis infections. The process used to clean and prepare cows for milking is open to wide variation from one milker to another, if not managed with standard operating procedures. An error in this process would be attaching a milking unit to a cow that is not clean and dry, the result of this may, of course, be a new infection (National Mastitis Council, Recommended Milking Procedures).

The Feeding Process

Feeding dairy cows is another area where performance variation can have a major impact on farm profitability. The cow has the remarkable ability to take inexpensive forages and other feedstuffs and convert them into valuable milk. She uses a complex population of microorganisms in her rumen to accomplish this task. The rumen microorganisms, and thus the cow, function much more efficiently when they receive a consistent diet (Sniffen, 1993).

While research has shown that some variation in total mixed rations is introduced by the feeds themselves, most variation is introduced by human errors in feed formulation Buckmaster and Muller (1994) indicated that “deviation from the TMR as formulated can result from weighing errors, errors or variation in the dry matter content of the ingredients, and errors and variation in nutrient sampling and analysis.” All of these errors can be controlled and virtually eliminated with a trained and motivated workforce that buys into and uses standard operating procedures.

Participative Management

Managing for quality with standard operating procedures is about engaging the creative talents of managers, workers, and advisors in a cooperative way. When this is done well, the result is an outstanding procedure that everyone feels committed to. Attempting to create SOPs at the management level and then simply impose them on workers is an exercise in futility. Imposing SOPs on others without their input leads to resentment, rejection of the SOP, and countless small acts of sabotage that defeat the purpose altogether.

The right way to design SOPs is in a participative manner. Participative management means encouraging everyone that will be affected by the SOP to contribute to its development. Leading this process takes practice, but it is worth the effort because teams of people will always outperform individuals. We will explore the steps in a participative approach to SOP development in a future article.

Leadership for SOP development should come from the manager of the process to be standardized. He or she may work closely with an outside advisor with technical expertise in the process such as a veterinarian or nutrition consultant. Often, this team leadership approach is effective because the two can complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

In any case, the SOP development leaders should be aware of five obstacles to participative management (Silos, 1999).

  1. Resistance to change. Working together to create great procedures is a radical change for some dairy organizations. Leaders need to make sure that everyone know what is happening and why.
  2. Mistrust by workers of management’s motives. Workers are used to just working, not contributing to improvement. Let them know that the SOPs will help everyone get better.
  3. Lack of clear expectations. Workers may not be sure how much to contribute or what is appropriate. Reassure them that they won’t get into trouble for bringing up their ideas.
  4. Lack of participative skills. Managers, employees, and advisors all struggle with this at times. Make the opportunity for input as non-threatening as possible.
  5. Lack of commitment from top management. Without commitment from the top to support participation, there is no chance for an SOP process to succeed.

Plan For Results

As with most management activities, advance planning greatly increases the chance of success with standard operating procedures. The person or small team that will lead the SOP development process needs to make plans and decisions before the process can begin with the other stakeholders. Decisions that should be made in the planning stage include the following:

  1. What business goals will the SOP help to achieve? Clearly define the process and products that will improve when the SOP is in place. Illustrate for everyone why the process is important and how it contributes to individual and business success.
  2. How will we monitor results to know if the SOP is properly designed to meet the goals? The old saying, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” definitely applies here. Think about what you will measure.
  3. How will we monitor performance so that we know workers are following the SOP and so that we have information to feed back to the workers? SOPs are about reducing variation introduced by people. There must be a way to ensure that everyone understands the procedure and follows it.
  4. What type of procedure format should I use? There are a lot of ways to present an SOP. We will discuss details about format in the next article.
  5. How can I get everyone (management, workers, and advisors) to buy into this SOP? If you can’t get everyone on board, it won’t work.

The answers to these questions will guide the development and implementation of standard operating procedures. Future articles in this series will explore these questions and related issues in much more detail.


Variation is a subtle but costly problem on many dairy farms. Many manufacturing organizations have developed systems of participative, quality management that hold great promise for helping dairy farm operations to reduce variation and improve productivity and profitability. Standard operating procedures are the operational part of quality management systems. Participative, quality management is quite different from the traditional view of farm management. To be successful with SOPs, dairy managers need to think about the results they want to achieve, get everyone to buy into the process, and provide strong leadership.


Buckmaster, D.R., L.D. Muller. 1994. Uncertainty in nutritive measures of mixed livestock rations. J. Dairy Sci. 77:3716.

Kertz, A.F. 1998. Variability in delivery of nutrients to lactating dairy cows. J. Dairy Sci. 81:3075.

Rasmussen, M.D., E.S. Frimer, Z. Horvath, and N.E. Jensen. 1990. Comparison of a standardized and variable milking routine. J. Dairy Sci. 73:3472.

Silos, I.M. 1999. Employee involvement - a component of total quality management. Production and Inventory Management Journal. First quarter, 1999.

Sniffen, C.J., R.W. Beverly, C.S. Mooney, M.B. Roe, A.L. Skidmore, and J.R. Black. 1993. Nutrient requirements versus supply in the dairy cow: strategies to account for variability. J. Dairy Sci. 76:3160.


Richard Stup

Richard Stup
3 articles

Branch Manager and Business Consultant at  AgChoice Farm Credit 

Read more »

AgChoice Farm Credit

AgChoice Farm Credit