Project Update: Surveys and focus groups completed

by Dr. Ron Erskine

Originally published April 3, 2013


Dairy farming in the U.S. has dramatically changed in the past quarter century. Volatile milk prices and feed costs, increasing herd size that also increases the reliance on hired labor, more complex nutrition programs, diverse options to provide shelter, and increased pressure for environmental stewardship have fostered greater diversity among dairy enterprises. A critical, and often unrecognized, obstacle to implementation of mastitis control practices in many herds is the behavior and attitude of farmers and employees.

We know that dairy producers who are clean and precise in their approach to managing the herd have less mastitis than herds where management practices are more hurried (Barkema, et al., J Dairy Sci, 1999). Historically, research and outreach efforts to reduce mastitis provided technologies and management strategies to dairy producers, who would implement those that were feasible within the constraints of herd facilities.

Yet we also know that human factors such as compliance with protocols play an important role in farm performance.  As immigrant labor becomes a growing part of the American dairy industry, cultural issues and communication barriers can create barriers to effective training of farm employees. So the surveys and focus groups were designed to elicit information about these concerns as well.

Targets and timelines

Our mail survey was sent to a stratified random sample of farmers in our three target states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida (320 dairy herds in Michigan, 1,250 herds in Pennsylvania, and about 130 herds in Florida). This sample size was calculated to deliver a survey response from 5% of the total Grade A herds in Michigan and Pennsylvania, assuming a 30% response. Because of the smaller number of herds within Florida, the sample size represents all permitted herds.

The survey (embedded below) included questions in six key areas:

  1.  farm characteristics,
  2. existing mastitis control and antimicrobial use practices,
  3. knowledge of mastitis options,
  4. values and beliefs concerning mastitis control and antimicrobial use,
  5. constraints and barriers to available mastitis control options, and
  6. dairy owner/manager characteristics and demographics.

The survey was administered through the Wolfgang Freese Survey Research Laboratory at the Social Science Research Center (Mississippi State University).  Dr. Rebecca Schewe supervised the series of “five points of contact by mail” for the survey:

  1. an initial letter,
  2. the first copy of the survey,
  3. a reminder letter,
  4. a second copy of the survey, if needed, and
  5. a  third copy of the survey if needed.

Response rate higher than anticipated

I am delighted report that Dr. Schewe’s diligence produced an overall response rate of 41% – 39.5% in Michigan, 45% in Pennsylvania,, and 21% in Florida. (Florida data will only be used in the pooled analyses.)

Analyzing data from the mail survey will help us understand the barriers to implementing mastitis control practices from the perspective of the farm owner/managers. In addition, to gain insight from dairy farm employees, we conducted focus groups in the three target states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Those focus groups provided a more in-depth understanding of the diverse barriers that limit the adoption of mastitis control practices and prudent antimicrobial use. Talking in depth about issues such as poor communication between farm owners and employees or heavy debt loads that limit capital investment will continue to enrich our understanding of the relative importance of these barriers on diverse farms and engage the unique perspective of farm employees.

The focus groups in the three target states were comprised of:

  1. owners/managers of small and medium herds,
  2. managers of large herds,
  3. English-speaking farm employees, and
  4. Spanish-speaking farm employees.

The focus group interviews were conducted by Drs. Marizel Davila and Rubén Martinez of the Julian Samora Institute, Michigan State University, and they will transcribe and analyze the findings. The plan is to identify significant behaviors/attitudes that impact efforts to produce quality milk. The Quality Milk Alliance team will then incorporate these findings into the Quality Milk Audit tool for use on dairy farms to help us achieve our goal of reducing antibiotic use by half and mastitis by a third in the target states within five years.

CLICK HERE: A Survey of Mastitis on Dairy Farms

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