Dairy producers are doing something right.

A study presented in September 2011 at the 3rd International Symposium on Mastitis and Milk Quality shows a continued decline in bulk tank somatic cell counts, indicating improved milk quality.

Improvements in management, housing and technology have made this possible.

“In most cases, our clients use full prep routines. We have better teat dips, particularly better winter-protectant dips. We are doing a better job washing towels and monitoring the cleanliness of the towels and the barn,” says Angela Daniels, a veterinarian with Circle H Headquarters in Dalhart, Texas.

Bottom-line: Milk quality should continue to improve at a significant rate.

Significant improvement

The study from the milk-quality symposium used data from four Federal Milk Marketing Orders, representing almost 50 percent of the milk shipped in the U.S.

It showed significant improvement over the past five to seven years. In 2010, the average bulk tank somatic cell count was 224,000 cells/ml., compared to 258,000 in 2005, an improvement of 13.2 percent.

More than 99 percent of the milk and 98 percent of the shipments monitored during 2010 met the current federal regulatory limit of 750,000 somatic cell count.

Even with a stricter 400,000 somatic cell count limit, as some have proposed for the United States, 89.5 percent of the milk would have qualified, according to the National Mastitis Council.

The study was a collaborative effort of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Mastitis Council.

What’s behind the improvement?

A number of inputs can impact somatic cell count on a dairy — everything from bedding, cow health, environmental changes, milking equipment, sanitation and more. It’s difficult to point to one area that makes the difference.

“From my experience, it is dairy-specific and is generally multifactorial,” says Daniels, who works with clients throughout the Dalhart, Texas, area to improve milk quality when opportunities arise.

“We advocate a monitoring program that includes regular bulk tank cultures, monitoring fresh cows for contagious mastitis and bacterial monitoring of mastitis cases,” Daniels says.

“The small things matter a lot,” she adds. “Farms that have good milk quality are good at mastitis recognition, maybe to a point where we are hypersensitive. They also have sound milking and treatment protocols in place and a good monitoring system that allows us to recognize when changes occur.”

Industry-wide, advances have been made in cow cleanliness and sanitation. “We also now have the tools to hygienescore cows,” Daniels says. “There has been new technology introduced with pre-dipping and more attention to stall cleanliness.”

Geni Wren is editor of Bovine Veternarian, a sister publication of Dairy Herd Management

Where we’ve improved

Good management is at the heart of improved milk quality.

Which management practices yield the highest return? Research by the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) offers insight into this. And, since the agency conducts dairy-specific studies every five years, there is a basis for gauging how management practices have changed over time.

Jason Lombard, veterinarian and dairy specialist with NAHMS, points out the following:

• A higher percentage of operations fore-stripped cows in 2007 compared with 2002.
• The use of single-use cloths or towels for drying teats increased from 2002 to 2007. The single-use paper towel was the most common drying method used in 2002 and 2007. In summer and winter, the percentage of operations that air-dried teats prior to milking decreased from about 27 percent in 2002 to about 12 percent in 2007.
• More milkers wear gloves during milking. The percentage of operations at which milkers wore gloves to milk cows increased from 32.9 percent in 2002 to 55.2 percent in 2007. The percentage of cows on operations where milkers wore gloves increased from 48.7 percent in 2002 to 76.8 percent in 2007.
• More operations used automatic takeoffs in 2007 compared with 2002. Specifically, operations that used automatic takeoffs increased from 36 percent in 2002 to 45.4 percent in 2007.
Milk quality continues to improve• More cows are being milked in parlors. The percentage of operations that used a parlor as a primary milking facility increased from 28.8 percent in 1996 to 39.5 percent in 2007, while the percentage of operations that used a tiestall or stanchion decreased from 69.5 percent to 60.3 percent during the same period. A larger shift was observed in the percentage of cows, as 54.9 percent of cows were milked in parlors in 1996 compared with 78.2 percent in 2007.
• The ideal bedding for lactating cows is dry and clean, provides cushion, and does not support bacterial growth. The percent of cows on sand bedding has doubled – 15.3 percent in 1996 to 30.3 percent in 2007. Nine percent of cows were bedded on composted manure in 1996 compared with 24.2 percent in 2007. Mattresses showed a large increase, as well.