Sweeney Dairy: SCC at rock-bottom levels

This article appears in the June 2009 issue of Western DairyBusiness

By Ron Goble

VISALIA, Calif. – The sign hanging at the end of a dead-end road north of here says it all: 


A Quality Milk Producer for

Leprino Foods, Lemoore, California

Milk quality is the name of the game as far as dairyman Jim Sweeney is concerned. 

Sweeney is a perennial winner of the Tulare County Dairy Herd Improvement Association’s annual low SCC honors. This year’s average for Sweeney Dairy was 82,000. In the dairybusiness for 21 years, this small open open-corral dairy near the Sierra foothills could easily have been a snapshot from the1950s or 60s, but over those two decades he has averaged an SCC in the 80,000s – an amazing fete.

He milks 280 head, 2X in his double-four side-opener style 1940 vintage parlor. He still feeds grain in the milking barn and has three employees who he says he has trained in his specific management style.

About a third of his cows are Jerseys or Jersey crosses. Of the 70 or 80 Jerseys, maybe 20 are crosses. While they do all A.I. breeding, they run Jersey bulls with the heifers to work cleanup.

Sweeney was a city boy, living his first dozen years in San Francisco. At 13, his family moved to Sonoma and he and his brothers started working on dairies and raising drop-calves, moving irrigation pipes and other dairy chores. He began buying registered Holsteins as a 4-H project and kept them at other people’s dairies. He eventually sold them to pay his way through college.

“It got to the point that you either start a dairy or sell them,” he said. “When someone else is milking them you’re not making any money, and you have a lot of money tied up in them.”

After graduating from Fresno State College in 1981, Sweeney worked as a herdsman for three years at Quist Dairy near Fresno. Then he was self-employed fitting cattle for livestock shows and was able to travel the world and see a wide variety of dairy operations. 

In 1988, Jim married Amelia and a few months later they leased their own dairy – a small “hole-in-the-wall” facility in Caruthers, Calif. in Fresno County. It was a one-side flatbarn where they were milking about 100 cows that he had bought and raised after college. They ran that dairy for three years until they maxed out the facility with 120 cows.

“First, I did all the work myself,” Sweeney said. “Then I hired one worker. Amelia has always done the bookkeeping for the dairy.”

Sweeney was on DHIA testing from the beginning. He has seen the system evolve from a huge paper trail to the era of computerized instant access. “Dairymen have enough things to worry about. They don’t need to worry about their numbers because they are available on every cow without flipping through the papers.”

The first three years he and Amelia were in business, they recorded SCCs ranging from 42,000 to 60,000. He credits Jim, and his late father, John Bos, for helping him develop the discipline required to maintain a low SCC and manage his operation well. Sweeney had housed most of his animals at Bos Dairy until he could afford to lease a facility.

Fast-forward to 2008, where Sweeney’s DHIA herd averages were: 25,122 lbs. energy corrected milk (EMC) and 887 lbs. fat.


Learning at Sweeney Dairy

“First of all, I train every milker myself,” declared Sweeney. “I don’t let my workers train each other. In fact, I try to hire someone who has never milked cows before. Probably 99% of our workers have never milked cows before. After I train them, I know I can count on them to do things the way we want them done – no shortcuts.

“You must be sure they are not afraid of cows. The guys who are afraid of cows will never make good milkers,” he said. “A producer can have a very expensive parlor, but if milkers don’t do things right, he’ll have a mess and it hurts his bottom line.

“Milking the cows is the most important job on the dairy, and most dairymen pay the least amount of attention to it,” he declared. “Dairymen have a responsibility to produce the best product possible – every day.”


The Sweeney System

The dairyman stresses that milkers never milk wet cows; only clean, dry cows. Before milking the cows stand in the wash pen where sprinklers work 8 to 12-minutes to clean off the udders. Once the sprinklers are off, he lets the cows stand in the wash pen, so when they let them into the parlor, they are dry. 

Sweeney predips with 1% iodine (actually a postdip solution, but he uses it as a predip).  They use as many paper towels as it takes to wipe them off. 

He said milkers wipe the teats closest first, and then when they strip them, they start with teats that are farthest away and work toward themselves, so they are not dragging their hands across teats that have already been opened up.

“After milking, I have them strip teats again. You either find mastitis at the very beginning or at the very end of milking,” he explained. “We use Udder Gold 4XLA for postdip and Udder Gold Five Star in the winter and work from the farthest teats to the closest.”

Sweeney was taught by his veterinarian that iodine dips won’t spread mastitis, but the barrier dips like he uses for postdipping can. That’s why after postdipping he has his milkers dump out the small amount of solution residue remaining in the cup.

For cows they are drying off, Sweeney uses separate alcohol pads – one for each teat – after postdipping. “We rarely have a cow in the dry pen get a bad quarter,” Sweeney said. “We won’t dry a cow off with mastitis. We milk her until the mastitis is gone, unless we just want the calf and we are going to beef her as soon as she delivers.”

He teaches his milkers how to spot mastitis and sends his animals to the hospital pen at the first sign of the malady.

“When we treat a cow with mastitis, we do it the same way as we do with a cow that we dry off,” he said. “Those cows are always milked last and each one has two leg bands to mark her. We cull cows that are mastitis problems, but we don’t cull cows because they might have a high somatic cell.”

He pointed to an individual cow that had a SCC of 2.4 million one month and by the next DHI test she was down to 250,000 without treatment. “Sometimes if the high SCC persists for a couple months, we’ll bring them into the hospital pen and make sure they get milked out right. I think not being milked out well is a lot of the problem,” Sweeney said.

He commented that on a small dairy like his it’s very easy to turn a problem cow out into the hospital pen. However, some of the large-herd dairies may have more difficulty worrying about one cow when they’ve got 50 or 60 others in the parlor at the same time.

Sweeney said his milkers also use Bag Balm on a regular basis to keep cows’ udders and teats from getting dry and irritated. “During winter, cows’ udders get cold and wet, especially in open corrals. You have to keep their teats in good condition,” he said.

It’s all about taking good care of your cows, Sweeney said.


Quality and the bottom line

“Some producers think it costs you money to get premiums to boost your bottom line. But, when you are milking clean cows, they give more milk. If a cow has a scarred teat from bouts with mastitis, that quarter will never produce like a healthy one. And those are the quarters that would have high somatic cell counts,” he explained. “The way it affects the bottom line is, your cows milk better. It’s like giving them rbST without having to give, or pay for, the shot.”

Liners are another important element in maintaining good udder health. He changes liners once a week and more often if needed. When cows are giving more milk, the liners have to work harder, he said. Whenever a cow kicks off a machine, the milker needs to check the liner to make sure it’s not damaged. If it is damaged, it’s replaced with a new one.

“When we milk cows we want everything to be done the same, every time.” 

He beds his cows with straw during the winter because he says it “keeps their teats warm and dry.” He keep adding straw until winter is over and then they push the straw out and compost it for spreading on fields.

“It’s real important to have good uddered cows and that should be the No. 1 thing each dairyman is breeding for,” he said. “We select bulls for high components and high udder composites. And we’re more interested in components than milk. That’s why we use bulls that are high in fat and protein. 

“Our genetics – like our animal care and management practices – are extremely important to our success.”  



  To contact Jim Sweeney at Sweeney Dairy in Visalia, e-mail him at: japlus3@aol.com.