Does anyone oppose lowering the maximum allowable somatic cell count from 750,000 cells/mL. to 500,000?

That was a question posed on one of the e-mail discussion networks recently by a dairy producer from Vermont. Those who responded said the SCC limit should be lowered.

Hector Castillo, post-doctoral associate with the animal breeding group at Cornell University, pointed out that it's in the producers' own best interest to get somatic cell counts down. Herds with low somatic cell counts don't have the same reductions in milk yield from mastitis that high-SCC herds do.

Studies have shown that for every doubling of somatic cell counts in a herd, milk production drops by 400 pounds per cow per lactation.

Besides the obvious economic reasons for lowering the limit, you have potential health issues as well.

Somatic cells are not a health risk per se. But, they are an indirect measure. A herd with an extremely-high SCC obviously has a mastitis problem on its hands, and may be at increased risk for antibiotic violations or have a high bacterial count. Hygienic conditions tend to be worse on farms with high SCCs than farms with lower counts.

We would also be giving the public a better-tasting product, on a more consistent basis, if the limit was lowered to 500,000.

It's difficult to understand why the regulators have waited so long on this issue. Lowering the SCC limit to 500,000 would be a win-win for producers and consumers alike.

Few herds would be impacted significantly.

Based on a study by the USDA's Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory, reported in the January 1994 issue of the Journal of Dairy Science, we can say that approximately 3.4 percent of the Holstein cows in this country have SCCs exceeding 500,000.

Bulk tank somatic cell counts in the U.S. currently average 300,000 to 325,000 during the winter and spring, then rise to a peak of about 375,000 to 400,000 in summer, and then work their way down again as the weather cools, according to USDA data from eight milk market orders representing producers from 22 states.

For the most part, dairy producers already have done a good job of reducing somatic cell counts. But, self-initiative will only go so far. At some point, government must step in and help us get rid of the laggards who won't make the necessary changes.

Of course, many of you don't want to see the government get involved. We would suggest this is one time when the government can be helpful in setting reasonable limits.

It's important, too, that our country go on record supporting a 500,000 SCC limit as we get more involved in the export market. Most countries already have stricter SCC limits than we do. The European Union currently has an upper limit of 400,000 (although it should also be noted that different countries have different ways of calculating SCC).

Lowering the legal limit from 750,000 to 500,000 would send a message to consumers - both home and abroad - that our quality standards are high.

Make your thoughts known

In early May, the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments (NCIMS) will meet in Atlanta, Ga. As part of its agenda, the Conference will probably take up the issue of somatic cell count standards in the U.S.

If you would like to see the standards changed, be sure to contact your state department of health or department of agriculture - preferably someone in charge of milk safety - prior to the Atlanta meeting.

Or, contact Leon Townsend, executive secretary of the NCIMS, 110 Tecumseh Trail, Frankfort, Ky. 40601.