Bovine Health: Milk quality still matters despite evaporating premiums

by Gabe Middleton, DVM
There is no denying that milk quality premiums have been evaporating no matter what region you are located in. Bulk tank somatic cell count used to allow a producer a significant opportunity to gain valuable dollars or cents onto the mailbox price. There still may be the opportunity to increase your mailbox price above base, but it’s not what it used to be for most producers. So why should a dairy producer care about milk quality anymore?
Hopefully, producers have a sense of pride in the product they produce. Somatic cells are the cow’s response to infectious agents, so lowering the level of somatic cells means that the milk is more pure and clean. The industry cannot afford to give consumers any more reason to look to alternative products.
Lost milk
Bulk tank somatic cell count may not matter as much on your milk check, but they matter to your production level. Cow’s fighting infection in their udder, even if the infection is subclinical, will produce less milk. Research done several years ago suggests that for every doubling of the somatic cell above 100,000, your cows lose 1.5-2 pounds of milk. So, if your somatic cell count is 400,000, your cows are likely milking 3-4 pounds less than if you were at a somatic cell count of 100,000. Those few pounds of milk are critical to profitability, especially during turbulent economic times.
Clinical mastitis matters
A dairy producer may underestimate how costly a case of clinical mastitis is. Research suggests that a case of clinical mastitis may cost close to $400. This cost takes into account discarded milk, loss of future production throughout the rest of the lactation, drug and/or veterinary costs, premature culling, death loss, etc. Paying attention to milk quality and preventing clinical mastitis will always be important to the bottom line of the dairy producer. Reducing clinical mastitis also reduces the risk of antibiotic residues in milk and meat.
A little can go a long way
Even a small increase in the mailbox price is important. In my practice area, lowering bulk bank somatic cell count from 250,000 to under 100,000 can increase some producer’s mailbox price close to $0.40/cwt. For every 100 cows at 75 pounds of daily production, this can mean almost $1,000 per month of extra revenue. A dairy producer cannot afford to lose that amount of money based on the current market prices.
Ways to improve
So the question is how is a producer going to improve milk quality to reduce clinical mastitis and increase premiums due to low bulk tank somatic cell count? The mastitis triangle involves three areas: The milking machine, humans, and the environment.
The milking machine is critical to milk quality. A milking machine that is properly functioning is often underestimated in the goal to achieve a more quality product. The system should be routinely checked and maintained by equipment service professionals and/or your veterinarian. The goal of the system is to provide stable vacuum at the teat end and consistent pulsation with adequate rest that efficiently and gently removes milk.
The cow’s environment is critical to milk quality and mastitis prevention. Sand is the gold standard bedding, however, there are many other bedding substrates that can work very well to achieve quality milk. Herds with mattresses, mats, or waterbeds can still achieve very high quality milk, but likely do not realize the cow comfort benefits of sand. Sawdust or recycled manure solids can work well as bedding substrates if managed properly. Whatever bedding surface or substrate you have, if managed properly it can still allow the farm the opportunity to reduce clinical mastitis and achieve quality milk.
The last point of the mastitis triangle is human interaction with the cows. This can be broken down into milking procedure as well as data collection and analysis. A consistent milking routine with proper cleaning and stimulation should be the ultimate goal of any parlor manager. Getting employees (or family for that matter) to maintain proper routine takes education and oversight. Your veterinarian may be a good person to oversee parlor operations.
Lastly, data analysis is a critical piece of the milk quality puzzle. If you have monthly test day milk quality data available, make sure you are using that data to make management decisions. Know your new infection rates (all lactating cows) and new infections over the dry period (previous lactation last test versus current lactation first test). Both numbers should be less than 10 percent. On an individual cow basis, you should be monitoring high somatic cell count cows, especially those who somatic cell counts have been high for several months. It can be somewhat unrewarding to treat cows with chronic infections, but these cows should be cultured to help your milk quality team understand what is causing the chronic subclinical infections. A sample for culture should be collected from every cow with clinical mastitis. The results should tell you whether the cow has a treatable infection or whether she has already cleared the infection on her own (no growth).
Don’t let dollars slip away from you from lost premiums and high clinical mastitis rates. Monitoring and improving milk quality often does not require a large monetary investment, so a dairy producer should use it as an opportunity to improve the bottom line of the dairy. Create a milk quality management team to help achieve the goals set by the farm.

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