On-Farm Examples

Examples of Lean improvements on Northeast dairy farms

The following examples illustrate how managers can apply Lean Management to streamline production activities on dairy farms. Every farm is different, so the solutions implemented by one farm will not necessarily apply to another. However, Lean principles and practices are relevant to farms of all shapes and sizes. Consider these examples a starting point to inspire Lean thinking and creative problem solving on your farm. No activity is too small or insignificant to benefit from Lean design. Thank you to those farmers who provided real-world information for these examples. 

The farm in this example has eight to 10 gates between a holding pen in an old tie-stall barn and the milking pens in the adjacent freestall barn. The gates are in various stages of maintenance and utilize old tie-stall neck chains with split rings to keep gates closed or open. The farm used these older gates and the chains to save on initial investment.

Each time a worker opens and closes a gate, it takes 30 seconds, on average, to un-clasp, unwind, rewind, and re-hook the chain, while making an effort to avoid losing the split ring. This time does not include moving the gates in any manner. For each trip through the laneway, a person passes through four or five gates and spends 120 to 180 seconds handling chains. During the day, this series of gates is unlatched and relatched at least 24 times. Using an average of two minutes spent handling chains per laneway trip, this small activity takes 48 minutes per day. Staff often choose to take a different path when moving cows, or wait until the gates are un-hooked for some other reason, to avoid the tedious task of un-latching and re-latching gates.

The farm plans to replace, fix, or modify gates, and install automatic latches or chains with snaps. After the change, time spent unlatching and relatching the improved gates is expected to be less than two seconds per gate, excluding the time it takes to move the gate. Total time spent on the task of securing gates is projected to drop from 48 minutes per day to 3.2 minutes per day, on average. This change has potential to reduce labor by 272.5 hours per year. By streamlining this task, staff will no longer avoid moving cows through gates or seek alternate routes. 

Assuming a value of $14.75 per hour for the cost of hired labor, this change could result in an annual labor savings worth $4,019. To realize this savings, the change must reduce hired labor hours or reallocate those labor hours to another activity that generates a greater return. This example does not estimate the initial costs associated with replacing, modifying, and fixing gates or buying and installing latches.   

In this example, the farm uses chains with snaps to secure gates separating pens of animals. Over time, snaps wear out and chains break or get lost and need to be replaced. Initially, when a staff member noted that a chain needed to be replaced, that staff member would complete their current activities before going to the shop to make a new chain. After making a new chain, that person would return to the gate that needed the chain to install it. Over time, different types of waste and disruption occurred as chains needed to be replaced:

  • Employees could not make replacement chains when needed because the supplies were not present in the shop.
  • Staff members got distracted and never replaced the chain.
  • Pens of animals got mixed up when chains became non-functional, requiring resorting.
  • Staff members spent time finding some temporary fix until a new chain could be made.

The new system involves hanging sets of three replacement chains in multiple locations in all barns. Employees helped to identify the best storage spots for the replacement chains. When a chain needs to be replaced, staff members get a new chain from the nearest chain storage spot and then return to the gate to install it. When someone takes the last of the three chains from one location, that person notifies a shop staff member that more chains need to be made. Inventory is taken of all chain storage spots to determine how many chains to make to restore all storage spots to three chains. Shop staff make and hang the necessary chains and order additional chain and snap supplies to have sufficient materials on-hand for next time chains need to be made.

Staff members replace chains more consistently. Day-to-day activities are disrupted less frequently because staff members no longer make chains on an as-needed basis or spend time making temporary fixes. Employees spend less time sorting animals because fewer pens get mixed up and need to be resorted.

The farm in this example has one set of pallet forks, which employees use frequently to unload deliveries, move supplies, and perform other tasks around the farm as needed. Forks fit multiple skid steers. Initially, employees detached and left forks at random places around the farm after using them for different activities. When someone needed pallet forks to complete a task, that person spent time traveling around the farm to find forks to complete their task, and then left the forks where they were at the end of that activity. Staff members wasted time searching for pallet forks when needed for planned activities. Longer disruptions occurred when pallet forks were needed to unload a delivery. Whoever left their daily task to unload the delivery had to spend additional time looking for the pallet forks first.

Managers identified a spot at the front of farm where staff unload deliveries. This spot was painted and marked as storage spot for the pallet forks. Now, whenever someone finishes using pallet forks for any activity, that person returns the forks to this spot, regardless of where on the farm they had been using the forks. Managers implemented this change after visiting another farm and observing their attachment storage system.

Employees spend less time on tasks utilizing pallet forks. Some additional time is spent returning forks to the designated spot each time they are used. However, the labor savings due to staff members no longer wandering around farm to find the forks far offsets this small labor increase. The farm experiences fewer disruptions to daily tasks associated with unloading deliveries because forks are stored where deliveries take place.

In this example, the farm has a large shop with multiple bays. Initially, tools used for tire changes were stored in multiple areas around the shop. The old process to change a tire involved the following steps:

  1. Pull trucks and equipment into an open bay.
  2. Make one to three trips to wooden block storage area for appropriate cribbing. If missing, spend time looking for blocks in other areas of the shop.
  3. Walk to workbench to get jack and impact socket. Spend time looking for impact socket if it is not in the tray. Make an additional trip to the workbench if the impact socket is the wrong size.
  4. Walk to tool cabinet for impact wrench. Spend time looking for impact wrench if it is not in the cabinet.
  5. Walk to the closest air hose reel to pull out the hose.
  6. Begin tire changing activity.
  7. Make a trip to get pry bars/sledgehammers to remove tire if needed.
  8. Complete tire changing activity.
  9. Make one to three trips to wooden block storage area to return blocks. Sometimes employees leave blocks on the floor or just push them out of the way.
  10. Walk to workbench to return jack and impact socket and then return impact wrench to tool cabinet. Sometimes employees leave the jack, impact wrench and socket on the floor or on the bench top instead of returning them to their designated spots. Occasionally, employees leave the socket on the impact wrench before storing it in the cabinet.
  11. Retract air hose. Sometimes employees leave the air hose laying on the floor.

The shop manager built a large rolling cart with shelves from various scrap materials found around the farm. Blocks, hydraulic jacks, impact wrenches, impact sockets, hammers and a pry bar are all stored on the cart. A single designated storage spot for the cart is identified in the shop. The capital investment associated with this improvement was low since the shop crew constructed the cart with existing materials.

With the cart, the new process for changing a tire involves the following steps:

  1. Pull trucks and equipment into an open bay.
  2. Roll cart to appropriate spot for changing tires. If the cart is not in the storage spot, find the cart in the shop.
  3. Walk to the closest air hose reel to pull out the hose.
  4. Walk less than five feet to the cart for any tools needed to change tires.
  5. Begin tire changing activity.
  6. Complete tire changing activity.
  7. Return tools to cart.
  8. Push cart back to storage spot. Sometimes employees just push it out of the way instead of returning it to the designated spot.
  9. Retract air hose. Sometimes employees leave the air hose laying on the floor.

Employees spend less time walking around the shop to find appropriate tools and equipment. Tools and materials are stored on the cart the majority of the time, so staff members spend less time looking for them. Sometimes, employees use tools and materials for other activities and do not return them to the cart, so the system is not perfect. Employees now complete tire changes in less time. This farm did not measure the time spent to change a tire before and after the change, so we are unable to quantify the exact reduction in labor hours.

The farm in this example has multiple skid steers that require preventative maintenance. As a result, the shop mechanic services skid steers more than 30 times a year. The preventative maintenance activity involves changing the oil and replacing the oil filter, cleaning air filters, checking and topping off fluids, greasing fittings, lubricating pivot points, and checking wheel nuts. To analyze this activity, the mechanic timed himself while servicing the skid steer. From start to finish, the preventative maintenance took 33 minutes and 19 seconds.

After timing the activity, the mechanic discussed the procedure with the farm owner. The mechanic identified an opportunity to save time by cutting out trips back and forth associated with getting tools and supplies and also putting them away. Together, the mechanic and the manager decided to purchase a tool cart and update the process for skid steer preventative maintenance. They added a new step at the very beginning of the process: wheeling the cart around the shop to gather all the necessary tools and supplies. They added another step to the end of the process: rolling the tool cart around the shop to return all tools and unused supplies to their appropriate locations.

After purchasing the cart and following the new procedure, the mechanic timed the activity again. It took 21 minutes and 46 seconds to perform skid steer preventative maintenance with the cart, saving more than 11 minutes. While the cart had been purchased for skid steer preventative maintenance, the farm mechanics also used the cart to assemble tools and supplies needed to perform various maintenance and repair tasks on other pieces of equipment.  After a few months and further analysis by the mechanic, the cart is left equipped with the tools and supplies necessary to perform the preventative maintenance on skid steers, eliminating the step of returning things to different spots in the shop. 

In this example, farm managers chose to focus on the feed center, and worked with their staff to choose a specific activity for improvement. Together, the team decided to analyze fueling of the feeding equipment. Before making any changes, the team observed that the fuel center was 2,700 feet away from the feed center, in the opposite direction from the barns where they delivered feed. Rough gravel driveways slowed down travel between the feed center and the fuel center. The round trip took 17 minutes, not including time spent fueling equipment. Feed center employees had to fuel four pieces of equipment every day and five pieces of equipment every other day. Each week they took 45.5 fueling trips, on average, spending approximately 12.9 hours per week driving equipment between the feed center and the fuel center.

This farm already had a spare fuel tank on hand, which the manager set up at the feed center. The farm also owned a fuel truck, previously used for fueling crop equipment in the field. An employee began transporting fuel from the fuel center to the tank at the feed center, using the existing fuel truck. After this change, the feed center employees were able to fuel up their equipment right at the feed center, eliminating numerous trips to the fuel center.

This change eliminated 670 hours per year spent driving feed equipment to and from the fuel center. Filling up the fuel tank at the feed center takes about 15 minutes per week, on average, totaling 13 hours per year. This results in an estimated net savings of 657 labor hours annually. At $25 an hour, this labor is valued at $16,425. In this example, the farm may achieve increased returns by reducing hired labor hours, or by reallocating labor hours to other more productive activities. 

In this example, the farm’s feed center consists of four upright bins, and their feed mix uses six ingredients. The bin size and number of ingredients require frequent feed deliveries. The farm receives a feed delivery at least once a week, and sometimes there are multiple deliveries in the same week or even in the same day. Initially, when the delivery truck was unloading, the feeder was not able to access the augers to load and mix feed. Instead, the feeder had to adjust his daily schedule to work around the deliveries, and he often spent time waiting for the delivery truck to finish. When a delivery disrupted his routine, the feeder was not able to supply feed on time to all the pens. Farm managers were concerned about inconsistent feeding times impacting herd performance, in addition to the feeder’s unproductive time spent waiting.

To eliminate this frequent disruption, the farm made it possible for the feeder to access the bins from the opposite side while the delivery truck was unloading. The farm constructed a second driveway running alongside the feed center and repositioned the augers toward that side. At the same time, the farm added a whey tank to the feed center, allowing the feeder to add whey to the mix while loading other ingredients into the mixer wagon.

After the change, the feeder can drive up alongside the bins and load the mixing wagon while the delivery truck is unloading feed on the other side of the bins. There is no longer any delay due to working around feed truck deliveries. The feeder stays on schedule and consistently feeds cows on time.  The new feed center layout also reduced the total number of hours to feed cows. By adding whey to the ration, the farm increased their net income over feed cost with minimal added labor. 

In one section of pasture, cows walked past a permanent waterer on the way to the paddocks. However, the cows tended to congregate some distance from this water source, so employees used a portable tank to make water available closer to the cows. Employees towed a wagon with two plastic totes to a well and used a portable pump to fill the totes. Then, they towed the water wagon back to the tank and used gravity to fill up the tank. This activity took about 45 minutes every other day. On days when the water wagon did not need to be filled, it took about five minutes to fill the tank from the totes. Overall, the farm allocated about 55 labor hours per year to move water from one location to another. The manager thought this labor could be better utilized elsewhere on the farm.

The manager considered three different alternatives and the associated implications for labor savings, along with other possible costs and benefits. Ultimately, he decided to make a permanent spot for the tank closer to an existing water line, and to extend that water line to the tank. To minimize development of mud around the tank, the farm placed the tank in a well-drained spot on top of an old concrete slab. The farm was able to reuse a concrete slab that had once supported a grain bin by dragging the slab to the new stock tank location. After extending the water line, they installed an automatic valve at the tank. Labor and supplies to complete the project cost $800.

By fully automating water delivery to the cows, the farm eliminated labor hours associated with this activity. The cost savings fully paid for the change within the first year. The farm achieved a net cost savings of $325 in year one, with higher savings expected in future years. The cows adapted well to the new location and started to congregate there, leading to the potential for higher water consumption and increased milk production.  

With gates in the holding area and milking pens needing frequent repairs, a challenge was to have this activity occur in a timely manner. When cow pushers tried to address gate issues, disruptions to cow flow occurred while they spent time looking for tools and supplies, and adjusting the gates. Over time, when gates got to a point when they were no longer functioning well, the dairy manager and the shop crew allocated time to fixing gates, which took them away from other tasks. 

A simple cabinet was built and mounted on the wall in a central location near the holding area. This cabinet was stocked with tools and supplies to fix gates. Chains, latches, bolt cutters and wrenches were organized and stored where the cow pusher passes by multiple times throughout the shift. Now, whenever the pusher notices a gate that needs a new latch or needs hinge adjustments, they can quickly take what they need to complete the task while a group is at the milking center. Once the box was built and positioned, each cow pusher was shown the location and made aware of the tools and parts inside, as well as given the expectation on how it should be maintained.

More gates are being adjusted and fixed in a timely manner without management even knowing there are gate issues to be addressed. Tools and unused supplies are also generally put back in place as the cabinet is located by where the cow pusher travels and is easy to do. The dairy manager and shop crew are mostly not involved in the ongoing maintenance of the gates. Now, management’s role is to check and keep the box stocked!