Milk quality: Making quality worth it

This article appears in the June 2009 issue of Eastern DairyBusiness

Everyone should have an incentive to strive for top quality milk

By Susan Harlow

Grandé Cheese, the Wisconsin company that buys Greg Ziegler’s milk, is strict about the quality of milk that comes out of his tank and is willing to pay enough to make the effort that goes into top quality worthwhile.

Ziegler and his father, Leo, own the Middleton, Wis., dairy where they milk 700 cows. The dairy’s somatic cell count (SCC) runs 130,000 to 180,000 in the summer and 120,000 to 160,000 in the winter.

Early last winter, Ziegler began awarding his milkers monthly bonuses based on SCC. “I see results – every dollar counts,” he said. “It more than pays for itself.” 

The quality premiums from Grandé give him a 3-to-1 return, and that’s not even counting his savings in mastitis treatment.

Ziegler pays bonuses to each milker based on these SCC levels in the bulk tank:

<200,000 – $50 <160,000 – $100

<180,000 – $75 <50,000 – $150

The dairy employs seven milkers, all of whom have been at the dairy at least five years. New milkers are trained by Ziegler or his five sons. He is especially particular about how milkers dry off teat ends and sweep mats free of manure. “Those are two critical things I look for.” 

Four milkers work each shift  in the 48-stall Westfalia-Surge rotary parlor, milking 270 cows per hour, 3X. They are trained to follow this routine:

The first milker rubs dirt off cows’ teats as they get on the rotary to stimulate let-down, and sprays on predip. 

The second milker, 20 seconds later, dries off teat ends.

Ninety seconds after the cow steps onto the rotary, a third milker attaches machines and checks for slippage and leaks on the first half of the rotary.

The fourth milker, positioned on the far side of the rotary, also checks for leaks and slippage, and makes sure cows milk out cleanly. Ziegler works this position two out of the three daily milkings; on the night shift, a 12-year employee takes that spot.  “I can see milk weights or if they have sore feet or need treatment or Udder Comfort from that position,” he said. “I look at the bottom of the teats – if they’re sore, I have a choice of two post-dips.” One is a more effective bactericide; the other a good conditioner that he’ll use once daily, or twice in cold weather. Udders are singed every 6 weeks to 2 months.

Ziegler, who is on DHIA testing because his herd is in a genomics program with Genex, combs through his DHIA records for the cows with the highest cell counts and addresses their problems. A cow may be dried off a month early and treated to give her more time to improve, be taken out of the milking string for treatment or shipped.

 Zieglers also watches for cows down in milk production or with swollen quarters. “If she’s got white milk and a swollen quarter and is close to heat, I’ll use Udder Comfort, an IV of saline solution and an aspirin,” he said. “Ninety percent of the time that fixes it, because she’s been bumped while in heat.”

If her milk is off-color, Ziegler treats her immediately with Quartermaster or Ceflax, and an IV of Banamine  until the quarter is soft, and moves her into a separate pen. Ziegler vaccinates with J-5 four times a year.

Controlling mastitis does more than just earn quality premiums, Ziegler said. The less mastitis in the herd, the faster milking gets done and the less electricity he uses. 

Ziegler attributes the dairy’s low SCC to:

• Moving close-up cows onto a bedded back 21 days before freshening. The pack is bedded twice daily with good quality cornstalks. “Keeping cows spotless before they calve is huge. If they start out with mastitis, it may recur,” Ziegler said. 

• Alley scrapers that run three times an hour in the three freestall barns to help keep manure levels low.

• Liming mattresses every milking and adding sawdust every other day.

• Good pre- and post-dips. Ziegler uses Oxycide and Dermacide.


Grandé believes that producing good milk is an attitude, and it’s up to the owner or manager to decide what quality means on their farm, said Greg Siegenthaler, director of milk procurement for Grandé Cheese, which makes Italian-style cheeses and Grade A whey products.

But the company has an incentive to encourage producers to ship good milk. The quality of the milk affects not only the quality of the final product but its consistency as well. “Producers who have a quality focus produce a more consistent product,” Siegenthaler said. “Quality also affects yield. Having a lower SCC allows us to harvest all the available casein in the milk.”

SCC also provides a measure of animal health on a dairy. “It’s almost a litmus test for animal welfare.” 

The cheese company samples each dairy’s delivery for components, SCC and three levels of bacteria. It offers producers a monthly bulk tank culture and a weekly composite sample to monitor for contagious mastitis outbreaks. “That’s especially helpful if a producer is buying a lot of cows,” Siegenthaler said. “It also helps track how milkers are doing – coliform counts give them an indication of what kind of job they’re doing on milk prep.”

Under Grande’s Milk Management Assistance program, veterinarian Dr. Andy Johnson consults with dairies, doing a full farm evaluation where he goes through the milking system, evaluates milking procedure, does teat end scoring and checks cow comfort. 

All Grandé’s premiums are tied to quality – it pays no premiums unless the milk meets the minimum allowable SCC of 349,000. Premiums are based on the federal milk marketing orders’ formula, and for every 1,000-point improvement in SCC, producers earn more premium.