Avid Sumrall did a slow boil as he sat in the audience, listening to the speaker refer to Florida’s milk quality as practically the worst in the country — second only to Louisiana’s. It soon became apparent that the speaker was wagging his finger at the Southeast for that region’s role in opposing a lower somatic cell count standard in the U.S.

Sumrall didn’t waste any time registering his own opposition. Before the speaker had even removed his microphone, Sumrall went up and said, “You don’t know me, but I take great offense to what you just got through saying.” Quite adeptly, the speaker turned it around and told Sumrall, “You’re the person I’ve been looking for.”

 

Sand provides a clean, dry place for animals to lie in the fresh-cow pen at this Dairy Production Systems facility in Bell, Fla. Despite the hot sun, many cows are up and eating at the feed bunk, encouraged by fans and misters.

The two talked long into the night, laying the foundation for a long friendship. But Sumrall still went home that week wanting to prove the speaker wrong. He was determined to get his somatic cell count down, thus proving that even Florida dairies can accomplish this task despite the heat, humidity and other challenges. Over the next several years, his team cut the somatic cell count by more than half.

Yet, by proving the speaker wrong, Sumrall may have actually proved him right. “It all boils down to being serious about milk quality,” Sumrall says. “I had to stop making excuses.”

A low to moderate somatic cell count — of less than 400,000 cells per milliliter — is achievable even in the Southeast with the right management.

Manage the environment
The extreme environmental conditions found in the Southeast, if not managed properly, are an added stress on cows. Cows with subclinical mastitis can quickly turn clinical in the summertime heat and humidity.

And, because it is hot, cows have a natural tendency to find shade and water. Some of the farms still use outdoor cooling ponds. While these ponds might be a good idea in theory; in reality, they are prime breeding grounds for bacteria — especially in the hot weather.

Florida in the summer is an incubator,” says Michael Pedreiro, chief operations officer at Dairy Production Systems (DPS) in Bell, Fla. “We can grow bacteria like nobody can grow it.”

Yet, there are ways to manage around this problem.  

The problem in Florida “is a mind-set, not the environment,” Pedreiro says. Rather than cleaning up the mud and providing the cows with sand bedding, too many dairymen have the attitude, “it’s hot and humid and there’s nothing we can do about it,” he adds.

DPS decided not to fall into that trap. Instead, it changed its management to stay ahead of the summertime jumps in somatic cell count. 

 

Despite the heat and humidity outdoors, cows find relative coolness and comfort in the free-stalls at Larson Dairy No. 8 in Okeechobee, Fla.

Starts with an attitude
Ever since his encounter with a speaker at a National Mastitis Council meeting several years ago, David Sumrall, president and chief executive officer at DPS, has instilled an attitude that milk quality is a high priority. “It pervades what we do every day,” he says.

Those who work with him agree. “It’s a clear vision from the top down,” says Kathy Swift, consulting veterinarian for DPS.

   DPS owns two farms in Florida and one in Mississippi, and manages two others in the Southeast, with a combined total of 13,000 cows (milking and dry). The markets these farms sell into don’t offer milk-quality premiums, by and large, so the farm is left with other motivations. For one thing, a healthy cow with a low somatic cell count will give more milk. And, says DPS production manager Rick Hedrick, producing quality milk is “simply the right thing to do.”

Travis Larson spent two years as dairy manager at one of the DPS facilities in Branford, Fla., before returning to his family’s farm operation in Okeechobee, Fla. He was aware of the priority placed on milk quality at DPS — something he wholeheartedly embraced.

 

It’s possible to achieve high milk quality in the Southeast, despite the heat and humidity. But it’s going to require bringing more cows inside and giving them a clean, dry place to lie.

“I’ve always been that way — even before I went to work for Dave (Sumrall),” he says. “I’ve always wanted to milk healthy cows.”

Tools already in place
Since returning home — Larson currently serves as general manager of the Larson Dairy No. 8 facility with 1,850 to 1,900 cows in milk — somatic cell count has improved dramatically. In 2003, when he took over, Larson No. 8 was running a somatic cell count of 350,000 to 400,000. This year, it will probably average 240,000 to 250,000. 

Larson says he concentrates on three key areas in order to reduce mastitis and keep somatic cell counts in check:

  • Aggressive prevention; that is, employing a proper milking procedure. “You have to post-dip, you have to pre-dip, you have to strip,” Larson says.
  • Aggressive treatment of mastitis, using a written protocol. 
  • Aggressive culling of chronic cows that seem to be spending a lot of time in the hospital barn. 

“We work at it, but it’s tough,” Larson says. This past June, somatic cell count at the Larson No. 8 facility rose from 230,000 to 320,000 in just one day, he says, as the result of sweltering summertime heat coming in and replacing milder spring temperatures. Some of the cows went from subclinical to clinical (expression of mastitis) due to the heat stress. “We treated a lot of cows and got it back down,” Larson adds.

Similar progress has been made at the five DPS facilities that David Sumrall manages in the states of Florida, Georgia and Mississippi

Environment was one of the things “most lacking in our system” prior to making a concerted attempt to get somatic cell counts down, Sumrall says. “We were not doing a good enough job providing the cow with a clean, dry place to live,” he adds.

   On a recent tour of his Bell, Fla., facility, Sumrall cited progress in this area. Cows in the fresh-cow pen looked comfortable despite the 98-degree heat. Many were at the feedbunk, encouraged by fans and misters. Others were lying down in ample piles of sand. (Please see photo on page 52.)

“Cows love it here,” Sumrall says.  

DPS also changed its milking routine. Prior to the new routine, cows would come in from drip pens, and milkers would simply attach units without any further preparation. Now, the farm follows a strict protocol consisting of five steps: pre-dip, forestrip, wipe, attach units and post-dip. 

   “We had all of the tools in front of us all the time — we just hadn’t made it a priority to put those together,” Sumrall says.

By putting the tools together, DPS experienced a significant drop in somatic cell counts. In the late 1990s, somatic cell count averaged 500,000. By 2001, it had improved to 359,000. So far this year, the five DPS farms have averaged 247,000.

Significant progress
General progress is under way. According to anecdotal reports, somatic cell counts among members of the Southeast Milk dairy cooperative in Belleview, Fla., have improved in recent years. However, because the co-op has changed computer systems, it was unable to provide numbers from far enough back to show a significant trend.

As more farms learn how to deal with the heat and humidity, milk quality in the Southeast will continue to improve.