Milk quality has been improving with decreasing trends in somatic cell counts (SCC) as an indication of improved udder health. United States average SCC has declined from 322,000 in 2001 to 228,000 10 years later. For years, many dairy producers have had a goal of producing milk with a SCC less than 200,000. I submit it is time to set a new goal, a goal every herd owner should aspire to, 100,000 SCC.
Somatic cells are the white blood cells the animal produces usually in response to an infection. As such, it is an indirect measure of the presence or absence of infection within the mammary gland. The bulk tank SCC measures the total number of infected quarters that were milked into the tank.
As producers do a better job of preventing new infections and getting cows over infections, SCC should drop resulting in higher quality milk for consumers.
NorthStar Cooperative DHI, based in Lansing Mich., reports herds with less than 100,000 SCC in their annual report. Ten years ago, in 2002, they reported 16 herds out of 1274, or 1.3 percent, on test achieving that level of quality. In 2010, 56 herds, or 4.3 percent, had less than the quality level. I look forward to the day when the majority of herds on test achieve less than 100,000 SCC.
Some may ask, Why should we work to get SCC lower? Isn’t the milk safe at a higher SCC?
“Milk quality is different from milk safety,” Dr. Jeff Reneau, Deptartment of Animal Science at the University of Minnesota, said. The milk that is accepted on the market is safe, but we can often do better in terms of quality.
There are three reasons for higher quality milk:
- We are trying to sell more milk (quality sells).
- The public’s mandate for dairy producers is healthier cows and lower SCC.
- Production, overall health and reproduction will be better in herds with lower SCC.
As producers, you support dairy promotion efforts through your checkoff dollars. We’re trying to increase the amount of dairy products consumers purchase. But nothing speaks louder than quality. Higher SCC and/or bacteria counts in milk will develop off-flavors sooner and have a shorter shelf life than milk of very low SCC, whether stored at proper temperature or not. We want dairy products to taste good to consumers, every time they consume it and whether or not they store it correctly.
In addition, why would we tolerate a level of infection within the herd that can be reduced? Cows fighting infections are not going to produce milk or reproduce as well as they could.
Many of the herd owners I work with have made a commitment to consistently produce milk with SCC less than 100,000. That commitment carries through to what they do in the barn, how they handle their cows, how they feed their herd and what they do in the parlor. It is a commitment of care for the cows and a commitment of quality for the consumer.
Cows not infected will naturally have a SCC less than 100,000. We want cows to be healthy and achieve optimum production. When cows have a SCC less than 100,000, they are no more prone to clinical mastitis than cows with higher cell counts. We need to use the tools available to prevent and control mastitis.
Why do some herds achieve a SCC less than 100,000 and many do not? Is it they can’t lower SCC because of where they farm or their facilities? Is it because of a lack of knowledge? It is because of a lack of tools? I’d like to suggest the primary difference is a lack of commitment. Those who put a priority on milk quality will achieve it. Why don’t you make lower SCC your goal and commitment this year?