Milk quality: Take action to improve

By Dr. Ellen Jordan, dairy specialist

Texas A&M University Extension

Producing high quality milk pays dividends through increased milk income. Capture more milk quality premiums by reducing somatic cell counts (SCC) in the milk you sell. If you haven’t already, implement the National Mastitis Council’s five-point control plan of:

• Dip every teat of every cow after milking

• Dry cow treat every cow

• Practice proper pre-milking procedures

• Check for proper function and operation of milking equipment

• Treat clinical cases of mastitis with appropriate antibiotic therapy

Greater reductions possible

Although these steps help reduce somatic cell counts to less than 400,000, greater reductions are possible. Attitude is a key component in improving milk quality. As a manager, show your employees that you are dedicated to producing high quality milk.  Work with employees to set a somatic cell count goal for your herd.

Once you set a farm goal to improve milk quality, share that goal with everyone from the herdsman to the milkers and the consultants. Include the outside crew that maintains housing facilities. To reach the goal of reducing somatic cell counts requires consistent attention to detail. Although not in the original five-point program, the following practices help improve milk quality as well:

• Remove udder hair

• Clean free stalls or areas where cows lie regularly

• Check dry cows for clinical mastitis

• Provide clean calving pens

• Keep milk from fresh cows out of the bulk tank the prescribed amount of time

• Dip teats rather than spray

• Provide nutrient supplementation for springing heifers and dry cows

• Milk only dry, clean teats

• Culture clinical cases of mastitis

• Develop an inventory control system so critical supplies are available

• Train new employees and retrain current employees

Seasons make a difference

Seasonal variations in somatic cell counts occur.  These occur in arid climates such as NM, as well as in more humid climates such as in Texas.

With summer approaching, the level of mastitis and somatic cell counts rise as temperature and humidity levels move upward.  Somatic cells are elevated in response to environmental stress – such as high summer temperatures – and it may take weeks or months for them to decrease.  Environmental mastitis increases during summer as well because of the increased likelihood of teat end exposure to bacteria.

Cattle are physically more stressed during the summer.  Research has shown high circulating levels of stress hormones interfere with the ability of the immune system to destroy bacterial invaders.  Somatic cells enter the udder as part of the immune response.  When somatic cells are depressed by stress hormones, they cannot function fully to protect against mastitis organisms.

What can be done to help reduce stress?

• In dry lots, provide shade.  Keep the area under the shades groomed so it stays dry and provides a clean place for cows to lie.

• In free stalls, take extra steps to keep bedded areas dry and maintain free stalls to minimize cows lying in the alleys. Bacteria require a warm, moist environment to multiple, so bacteria counts on soiled bedding can increase rapidly during the summer.

• In pasture situations, provide portable shades. Move shades frequently to reduce manure build up.  Although, trees provide a good source of shade and reduce stress; muddy, wet areas around trees result from manure accumulation.  This is a source of environmental organisms that increase clinical mastitis.  Also, high cow density can kill trees.

• Provide plenty of clean water.  Locate troughs on the exit lanes as well as in the housing areas. Cows drink about 50 percent more water when the temperature is 80 degrees versus 40 degrees.  They need water to cool themselves through increased respiration and perspiration.

Employee feedback important

Provide continual feedback to employees by posting somatic cell counts with the goal marked. Then employees can monitor progress.  Working together you can reduce somatic cell counts which can increase milk income.

These steps add up in the battle against high somatic cell counts and mastitis, either by reducing the stress-promoting hormones or by decreasing the growth sites for environmental mastitis organisms. Watching, implementing and correcting management practices to reduce summer SCC increases milk production and your herd’s health; thereby improving dairy profitability.