Improving dairy farm success through animal and human wellbeing

Portrait of Dr. Noa Román-Muñiz

Dr. Noa Román-Muñiz is an associate professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University and a highly skilled educator. Her teaching environment, though, isn’t what you might expect. And neither are the subjects and students she teaches.

As a veterinarian and Extension dairy specialist, Román-Muñiz teaches and trains dairy farm protocols to farm workers so that animals and employees can stay healthy and safe. From proper milking and calving procedures to handling cows with common health issues, such as mastitis, Román-Muñiz’s trainings help dairy producers reduce animal and human job-related injuries while building healthy and efficient work environments — critical factors that impact the bottom line and overall success.

“We struggle with employee turnover,” says Jon Slutsky, owner of La Luna Dairy in Wellington, Colorado. “When you have that, you are always training people, and following proper farm protocols is at risk. Noa gave us the tools to effectively train our employees, and today we have a better work environment because of that.”

Ag Day speaker

Dr. Noa Román-Muñiz will speak at the Rams for Diversity tailgate on Saturday, Sept. 9, as part of CSU’s Ag Day celebrations. The tailgate runs from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. at Diversity House, 645 S. Shields St. in Fort Collins. Everyone is welcome and food and beverages are available.

For more information please contact Tammy Liu at Tammy.Liu@colostate.edu.

Animal/human wellbeing connection

Through her work, Román-Muñiz recognized that effective communication was at the heart of the animal/human wellbeing connection. According to recent research conducted by Román-Muñiz, as many as 94 percent of dairy farm workers in the United States are immigrant Latinos/as, and Spanish is the language that many workers are most comfortable speaking.

“When I first started visiting dairy farms during my CSU veterinary medicine internship, I was the only person on the crew who could speak Spanish with the workers,” recalls Román-Muñiz, a native of Puerto Rico. “I started wondering who was communicating with these workers effectively. That’s so important, especially when it comes to treating animals with drugs, selling or not selling product, food safety issues, and more.”

Today, she regularly helps bridge the language gap between owners and workers, and her clients agree that her bilingual ability adds to the credibility and impact of her trainings. It also allows her to support workers and owners when other serious human resources issues occur.

But she credits the evolution of her work from veterinarian to wellbeing trainer to the innovative thinking of CSU, her mentors, and her dairy producer partners.

Román-Muñiz always knew she wanted to be a veterinarian. Her mom was a medical technologist for a Veterans Affairs clinic in Puerto Rico, and her dad is an animal scientist. When she was 9 years old, her parents bought a herd of registered Holstein dairy cows.

“We grew up around cows and horses, and I always thought bugs were cool,” Román-Muñiz chuckles.

After completing the pre-veterinary program at the University of Puerto Rico, she was accepted to the University of Wisconsin’s veterinarian school where she earned her doctor of veterinary medicine degree. It was through her veterinary school friends that she discovered CSU.

“All of my classmates knew about CSU. It had a great reputation,” Román-Muñiz says. “So, I ranked them as my first choice, and I was grateful when CSU picked me for my internship.”

During her internship and master’s program, she worked with Dr. Frank Garry, Dr. David Van Metre and Bill Wailes, and she would make visits to local dairies.

“In agriculture, animals are the main focus, but the reality is, we are dealing with people,” she says. “If we can’t translate the science and put it to practical use, or if it’s not being used properly, it won’t promote change, which is why we are here.”

Education and training

Román-Muñiz pursued her master’s degree in clinical sciences and enrolled in occupational health, environmental health, and adult educational classes. To date, she has facilitated over 140 training sessions, workshops and seminars for dairy workers and managers in Colorado and other states across the country.

“The education and training that Noa provides our employees is critical to the success of our business,” says Jim Docheff Jr., owner of Blue Sky Dairy in Mead, Colorado. “If employees are trained right, they are going to do the job right, and the animals are going to be taken care of. And if we take care of the animals first, they will take care of us.”

Román-Muñiz’s life experiences, empathy, Spanish-speaking skills, and ability to talk about science in an accessible way really strikes home with his employees, he adds. “When she comes on the farm, people know her and she is accepted.”

Román-Muñiz always has an eye on the future and strives to be innovative and find ways that make training initiatives sustainable. Key to that sustainability, she says, is the awareness of cultural and language differences, intercultural competence, and the understanding that producers and workers are there for the same goal.

“If I can help dairy managers bring these ideas together for a better, safer work environment, that’s what I’ll continue to do,” she says.