Whether a dairy herd is large or small, ensuring milk quality is an important aspect of management. Dr. Frank Welcome, veterinarian with Quality Milk Production Services in Ithaca, NY, explained some of the factors that contribute to or hinder quality milk.
“The regulatory agencies responsible for monitoring milk quality are also responsible for testing for residues, freezing point of milk (an indicator of added water) and looking at critical components like protein and fat,” said Welcome. “Processor standards are typically higher than regulatory standards. In 2012, the EU imposed their standards on any dairy products shipped to the EU, so many milk processers have adopted those standards as the minimum. Most processors consider high quality milk to have a bacteria count (SPC) of 10,000 CFU (colony forming units) or less.”
Welcome said consumers are becoming more aware of animal health and well-being and environmental stewardship. “That is reflected in the demands retailers are making of producers and processors for the milk they buy,” he said. “This includes issues such as antimicrobial use on dairy farms – not necessarily related to a residue issue but the overall use of drugs, particularly antibiotics, on the farm.”
Although regulatory issues are not a problem for most dairy herds, farmers should realize that regulatory standards are not a target but represent an “upper allowable limit.”
“The dairy industry (processors, co-ops and retailers) are concerned with consumer and market demand,” said Welcome. “But because of current market circumstances, fewer processors are willing to pay for improved quality. We’re seeing quality incentives disappear or decrease.” Welcome added that some farms are on the brink of losing their markets because cell counts and bacteria counts are not meeting standards.
Successful dairy farms pay attention to detail and establish goals, including bulk tank somatic cell counts and key performance indicators such as infection rates and hygiene scores. Such farms create and stick with a plan and keep accurate treatment and performance records. “These farms are all on test, so they know which cows are problems, and they’re able to identify emerging issues on the farm fairly quickly and react to them appropriately,” said Welcome. “They use appropriate tools and technology (monthly cell counts) and are willing to use simple tools like the CMT.” Welcome added that everyone responsible for milk quality on the farm understands the plan and can recognize when cell count or infection rates increase.
Welcome said two of the most important factors in quality milk are facilities and cow hygiene. Cows with access to clean, properly sized stalls with ample bedding remain cleaner and healthier and have lower cell counts. Housing issues that can contribute to high cell counts include overcrowded dry cow pens and holding areas or pens with excess manure.
“What we don’t like to see are free stall barns where manure is removed only once a day,” said Welcome. “Because teats are so dirty, the bacteria population on the teat skin is going to be much higher than if those teats had been free of debris and manure. When dirty cows go through the parlor, it takes a lot longer to properly clean and sanitize teats before milking.”
Dairymen concerned about teat and udder hygiene can use a form to score the herd and determine the level of cleanliness. For evaluating cow hygiene, Welcome suggested starting with a baseline level, then after making appropriate changes in housing or bedding management, follow up and demonstrate that the actions taken are resulting in cleaner cows. Referencing the chart (the link is below), Welcome said he likes to see 10 percent or fewer cows scoring 3 or 4.
Welcome said cow comfort is directly related to milk quality. Bedding material should be good quality and provide a good cushioned surface. If a portion of the stall is lower and accumulates urine and manure, cows are forced to use an unsanitary surface to lie down.
Milking procedures are another important aspect of good milk quality. “You need to have a consistent routine with proper milking procedures,” said Welcome. “Wearing gloves is particularly important. We want farmers to use single-use towels to clean and dry teats and teat ends, and what we really want to see is clean, dry, well-stimulated teats so milk flow is a fairly high rate. We want all milkers on the farm to have a positive attitude and be well-trained in milking procedures.”
Welcome explained that if teat dip is sprayed onto dirty teats, coverage is inconsistent and unlikely to solve a hygiene issue. “We want to see teats that are well-covered with teat dip,” he said. “Teat dip should be on teats for 30 seconds prior to wiping the teats clean and dry. We want to see a one to two minute prep lag period between the stimulation of let-down and the attachment of the milking unit.”
Dairy farmers can assess the level of teat cleanliness by swabbing teat ends with a gauze pad or a clean towel. The goal is fewer than 10 percent of teats, preferably zero, teat ends with any bedding or manure debris. Welcome said cows might appear to have clean teats if viewed from the side or end, but specifically viewing the teat end often reveals manure that hasn’t been properly removed.
Poor maintenance of milking equipment also poses an infection risk. Welcome recommended evaluation of milking systems at least once a year, preferably twice a year for most herds. “For larger farms milking more than 500 cows, we prefer to have the milking system evaluated three to four times a year,” he said. “Farmers need to be aware of the need for routine maintenance, replacing rubber parts, gaskets, milk hoses and liners. Check average claw vacuum fairly frequently. Remove soil from the units and ensure air vents on the claw or the inflations are not obstructed.”
Welcome advised that units should be hosed off between groups or sooner if they become soiled. “If there’s water remaining on the mouthpiece of the unit when a new group of cows comes in, a milker can take a clean towel and wipe the water residue off the mouthpiece of the liner to reduce exposure to environmental organisms,” he said. “No cows should be in the parlor when hosing takes place so freshly milked cows’ teats aren’t contaminated with an aerosol mixture of water and manure.”
The National Milk Producers Federation F.A.R.M program promotes animal welfare, environmental stewardship and prudent antimicrobial use. Welcome said all the major co-ops across the country require producers to enroll in the program, which is constantly being updated. “Producers must demonstrate compliance with recommendations,” he said. “Non-compliance puts access to milk markets at risk.”
An udder hygiene scoring chart is available at https://tinyurl.com/y9nvn6kr .