Calf Connection: Employee Training: Is it really effective?

By Sam Leadley

Successful calf rearing depends on all caregivers doing their jobs correctly – all the time and on time. However, not everyone knows how to do their job properly. That is where training fits in.

When is training needed?

All newly hired workers need training. Never assume a person who claims to be experienced in calf care will perform them following your dairy’s procedures. Everyone needs to learn, “On this farm this job is done like this.”

When worker performance is compared to the protocol for doing a calf care job and found lacking, employees need retraining.

Who should do the training?

The first consideration for a trainer is being able to do the job correctly himself or herself, following the dairy’s protocol. A poorly trained person as a trainer is a recipe for poor calf care.

Second, it is essential to know enough about the job to be able to explain “why” it is important to do each step the way it is described. Knowing the “why” benefits us two ways: 1) a worker recognizes the significance of his/her work for calf viability and health; and 2) when an unanticipated circumstance happens, a worker selects the proper alternative procedure.

Third, a good trainer understands performing a task properly takes more than just “head” knowledge. Most calf care jobs involve motor skills that can be learned. Learning how to do a job correctly must involve actually doing the job; not just talking about it or watching another person do it.

Learning by doing

A proven technique when teaching a skill is:

1) The teacher demonstrates the skill.

2) The employee practices the skill while the teacher watches and evaluates.

3) If employee performance is lacking, then the teacher demonstrates again, emphasizing the points where the employee was weak.

4) The employee practices the skill again with the teacher evaluating.

5) The employee graduates and is allowed to work on his/her own.

From the employee’s point of view, learning a skill involves more than just watching the teacher. The employee must practice the skill.

For example, if you want to teach an employee how to give a local anesthetic when dehorning calves, you assemble all necessary materials, go to the calf housing, restrain a calf and, with the employee watching, give the Lidocaine.

It’s important to point out what you are doing at each step and why proper performance of each step is important. Unfortunately, most teaching sessions end without any practice for the employee while being observed by the teacher.

Practice while being observed

The student does the job and practices the skills while the teacher watches and evaluates. Did the employee halter the calf properly? Did the employee tie the halter as demonstrated in a knot that releases easily? Was the correct amount of Lidocaine drawn into the syringe?

You have the choice of letting the student complete the entire process of giving the local anesthetic. Then, if there are deficiencies, you can demonstrate techniques again.

When teaching, I choose to break into the employee’s practice session, demonstrating again the proper behavior right when the mistake is being made. This keeps the employee from practicing a skill incorrectly.

Making training more effective

• Keep the training session short. Break training into sessions lasting 10-15 minutes. Using the local anesthetic example, if the employee does not know to restrain calves, make that one session. Once those skills are mastered, go on to giving the Lidocaine injections.

• Train at the work site. If teaching an employee how to dip navels, go to the calving pen or barn. If teaching how to clean a tube feeder, go to the sink where it is usually done.

• Use actual equipment normally used to do the job. Saying, “If we had the [tool] we would have used it like this” cripples training. If you usually use a brush, syringe, water, Lidocaine and clippers, have them all for training.

• Having a written protocol (especially if it is in the employee’s native language) gives the teacher a “standard” when evaluating the employee’s performance.

• Be enthusiastic about teaching. Even if it’s not one of your favorite activities, think of how a properly prepared employee can make a positive contribution to the dairy’s bottom line.


Sam Leadley is a replacement consultant with Attica Veterinary Associates, Attica, N.Y. Contact him via e-mail:; phone: 585-591-2660; or visit