From urinals to your cows, change behaviour for performance

Published 18 February 16

Better motivation and relationships in the farm team produce better results – in health, productivity and profit. This is the theory of vet Dr Joachim Lubbo Kleen, who spoke at the CoBo conference in Berlin earlier this year. 

“Communication is important to share ideas and information, but designing the environment and organising work flow is just as important for motivation. In modern dairy farming, good results depend not only on factors like genetics and feeding, but also on human behaviour.” 

Dr Kleen says examples of this could be the accurate interpretation of oestrus signals in bulling cows, the detection of mastitis and its treatment or the precise creation of a diet according to the ration formulation. 

He points to many other examples too – herding cattle patiently or administering the right interventions in difficult calvings. In all these operations, implementing measures either incorrectly or incompletely will give poorer results, eventually damaging productivity. 

Achieving best practice 

He says that because of this, to achieve best practice on a farm, managing staff should mean: 

a)    Analysing the area in which you are trying to get compliance: Look at the data, observe how things are done and identify points for improvement. At this stage, communication is just a means to gather information rather than increasing motivation in itself. In fact, asking questions about, eg, the milking routine or feeding, can be perceived as critical or demotivating. 

b)   Defining goals that can be reached and measured: Examples would be new infection rates in mastitis, percentage of stillbirths, feed leftovers, heat detection rate, etc. These goals are largely dictated by the economic necessities of the operation. But the plan to reach the goals, ie deciding on a working standard, can be done in an interactive way such as by round-table discussions. However, care must be taken that this doesn’t dilute the goals; a decision eventually has to be taken by the body responsible for the result. 

c)    Communicating goals, decisions and plans: Communication becomes central in this part of the process. Communicating the decision should include not just facts but also reasons – and it should leave room for discussion. 

d)    Reviewing how the decision has been applied: In this stage the actual compliance is reviewed and this information forms the basis for an ongoing feedback loop. 



Using a ‘nudge’ 

In achieving actual change of behaviour on-farm, Dr Kleen points to the ‘nudge’ theory. 

He cites the most famous example of nudging, implemented by the facilities managers at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. 

“Cleaners were complaining about the ‘poor aim’ when the urinals in the men’s toilets were being used,” says Dr Kleen. “Signs urging users to be more careful made little impact. So they thought laterally, and instead stencilled an image of a housefly onto the back of each urinal.  This ‘nudged’ users to aim for the fly and immediately the accuracy rates improved! 

Toilet Fly2

 “As irrelevant as this seems to farming, it opens up a number of ideas as to how you can make people want to do the right thing, rather than just trying to make them do it.” 

Typically, when a farm is owned and operated by one person, they have a personal interest in ensuring the right attention to detail in all duties. But when you take on staff, how do you instil in them the same sense of diligence? Dr Kleen says the mistake we often make is to assume they are motivated by the same things as us. 

“One farm I visited was experiencing problems caused by feed not being pushed up properly. Numerous times, the owner had told the relevant member of staff what needed to happen, but it was clear the employee found the task both boring and demotivating.” 

Lateral thinking 

The answer, says Dr Kleen, was to think laterally. “One might be tempted to discipline the employee, move him to another role or dismiss him, but you could experience the same problem with the next person. This would be getting rid of someone just because you weren’t handling them appropriately. So the manager tried a different approach. He realised the employee was interested in machinery not animals, so he found an old tractor and fitted it with a device to push the feed up for the employee to use. Yes there was a cost involved, but it paid back very quickly in terms of improved milk yield and reduced waste. Furthermore, the employee enjoyed finding ways to do the job even better and more efficiently.” 

But while stressing the importance of ‘motivators’, Dr Kleen says behavioural nudges only work if the hygiene factors are right, money being the key one. “You can be inspired by motivational factors and let down by hygiene factors. So make sure these are dealt with first. But after a certain point, more money makes little difference and people instead respond to other stimuli. For example, you could have a well-paid herdsman who loves the cows but he can’t stand the lack of support, recognition or empowerment. Simply paying him more will not solve this.” 



Druckman, J.N. ,2001. The Implications of Framing Effects for Citizen Competence.

Political Behavior 23 (3): 225–256

McGregor, D., 1960. The Human Side of Enterprise, New York, McGrawHill. 

More reading on nudging and behavioural insights 

Floyd Woodrow, The Compass of success

Ted Talks: Daniel Pink, the Puzzle of Motivation 

Inside the Nudge Unit: How small changes can make a big difference by David Halpern

Nudge by Richard H Thaler