Protocols: no exact science but a continuous improvement process

Author: Maarten Crivits (ILVO) - March 26, 2018

What do you think is best, no protocol or a bad protocol?”, Niels Achten (Liba) asked the dairy farmers present at the 4D4F meeting ‘Protocols for dairy farmers’ (Belgium, 22nd February organized by ZLTO, LIBA and VHL.)

"Better a bad protocol, because then you know what you are doing and you can make things better", an attentive dairy farmer said,  when the question was asked again at the end of the meeting.

That protocols are not an exact science but a continuous process of stepwise improvement, was one of the take home messages of the day. Many dairy farmers see the importance of making their own protocols,  yet only a minority seems to be actively involved in making them. In order to get yourself started in proves to be useful to set up a protocol in four steps.

Be ahead of fate

Like so much in life, the first step is the hardest: creating support. Trying to get everyone around the table and starting to write down to the smallest detail ‘how are we doing things now?’. Sometimes fate has to strike first. Dairy farmer Niels van der Wielen, for example, told how his father fell ill which kept him home for several months, which gave him unexpected time to write down exactly what he is and is not doing wright now. This ultimately resulted in some thirty protocols - ranging from calf rearing, to solving a power outage - each time on an A4, framed and clearly visible to those who will carry out the task. Clue is: make that time also if you are not accidentally out of action, it pays off.

Do not copy paste blindly

A second step is the preparation of the protocols. Tips were given such as a simple language use, working with a photo or image, making sure everything is clearly visible and close at hand. Sometimes a protocol can be extremely simple: for example, numbering the pits to always be sure that you mean the same place. But usually a protocol is different at each farm and you just copy-pasting is not wise. Getting inspiration is useful, so be sure to check out how a colleague is doing or consult what they have done at Penstate University. For a recent overview of protocols, see for example the link  which provides a series of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) drawn up by the relevant university. Soon we will present you some SOPs worked out by the 4D4F team.

Keep it simple and ask for help

Niels Achten showed a table that clarifies which form is most appropriate. If there are few steps and decisions, stick with a simple text. Only when thing become more complex it is wise to start thinking about graphical performances or even entire flow diagrams.

More information to be found here :

It is also advisable to ask for help. For example, show the protocol that you have prepared for mastitis to your veterinarian and ask him/her for specific feedback on where your protocol can be improved.

Involve and motivate everyone

A third step is implementation. It is important to ensure that everyone is involved in the story: nothing as bad as detailed protocols no one performs. For example, someone indicated that you should not impose a protocol too strictly: "If you do not give some freedom to the person who has to perform it, they will leave your company." Another participant stated that he would ask someone who does not want to follow a protocol what he now does differently and why, to learn from it.

Furthermore, it must be ensured that protocols that you once made, do not start gathering dust. Give them a prominent place, maybe it is even interesting to make a competition around them to keep them alive. For example, who can recognize most mastitis cases or find the most efficient way to record all important points of interest in a fresh cows protocol?

Many small steps, large benefits

The fourth and final step is: 'evaluate your protocol'. Does it work better now? A series of small improvements leads to large benefits in the end. Dairy farmer Dries Janssen, who has been working with protocols for three years, is convinced that they have helped him to increase milk yield. "Now take the system that I have set up to systematically keep track of the temperature of the calves", he said, "I have made adjustments to this several times, until I - and of course my mother who mostly deals with this - are really satisfied with it. "Or as Niels W. said:" My three little brothers do not like dairy farming very much, but that is precisely why they are the most critical voices, it must be  explained perfectly, if not they will not do it."

Using social media

To streamline the entire process, you can also use social media. Niels W. told us that they use Whats App groups at their farm. "It's free, you can upload video and photos and it allows us to communicate with focus. For example, we have one group for all members of our farm for general communication, one group in which father and son discuss the adjusted feed ration and one for attention points to the veterinarian and feed supplier."

Discussion and amazement
Sometimes there was also amazement about the reason for a protocol. For example, someone asked Dries: "Why do you actually keep the temperature of the fresh cows every day, and do not write them down only when something is clearly wrong?"
Dries indicated that he thinks it is important to keep track of everything in order to clearly map out the evolution and communicate clearly to everyone at the farm. For example, for a certain animal, a body temperature of 38.5 ° C may be the criterion for something to be wrong, so immediate action must be taken. But for another animal it may be that it will stay around days around 38.5 ° C for a number of days but that everything will still be fine. If you do not follow that up, it may be that someone just treats immediately when it is not really necessary. Plus: "It keeps me awake."

The effects of sensor technology

Tamara Wind (VHL) finally looked at the protocol issue from the perspective of the 4D4F project and the application of sensor technology.
Imagine standing in the stable and you see a cow in heat. Within the dairy farmer a number of questions pop up, and a number of steps have to be taken to decide whether and when to inseminate this cow.
The present dairy farmers agreed that these types of decisions costs a lot of 'thinking power'. By creating a decision tree, this thinking power can be handled more efficiently. In this context, the impact of the combination of sensor technology, standard protocols and software is remarkable: the decision tree becomes a lot shorter and therefore clearer.


It was a fascinating meeting in which it became clear that dairy farmers are starting to set up new protocols to improve the technical management of their business. Talking through concrete examples remains a very good way to learn new things. That is why this type of meeting should certainly be followed up. For example, most people present indicated that they were interested in a well-functioning fresh cow protocol. Input for a new 4D4F workshop?