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Kentucky dairy producers overcome high SCC numbers

Tim Thornberry Published on 11 June 2014

There is likely no tougher agriculture sector in which to be involved than the dairy business, especially for those who have endured during the last few years of market instability and fluctuating milk prices. In the best of times, it’s hard work, but producers have had much more to deal with and overcome than just tired muscles.

A couple of years ago, dairy farmers were faced with complying to specific regulations that set the maximum somatic cell count (SCC) at 400,000 per milliliter of milk, a reduction from 750,000 and a number many farmers thought they might not reach or at least maintain on a consistent basis.

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However, many producers in Kentucky have met the challenge with the help of the University of Kentucky (UK) College of Agriculture, Food and Environment’s Dairy Extension program, the Kentucky Dairy Development Council (KDDC) and the determination of farmers to carry on their family traditions.

KDDC Executive Director Maury Cox says many things have happened to help get those counts lowered.

“It’s been a mutual, coordinated effort between the KDDC, the marketing organizations throughout the state, along with UK,” he says. “It’s also been a combined effort with the Market Incentive Leadership for Kentucky (MILK) program being one of the first programs to focus on SCC.”

That initiative offers premiums to producers who keep their SCC numbers down and originally started with a goal of 400,000 but now stands at 300,000 before those premiums kick in.

Cox also credits an offshoot of the MILK initiative known as MILK Counts, a program developed between the KDDC and UK Dairy Extension that helps producers who are in the MILK program but are having difficulties meeting their milk quality goals.

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Cox says for those producers utilizing the MILK Counts program, an assessment is made of their operations including milking equipment, parlor procedures, how the cows are milked and housing, to mention a few. Recommendations are then made from those assessments.

Cox adds that from that coordinated effort, the results of those farms that have been assessed has been tremendous.

To put into perspective how far the state has come, Cox says for those herds on Dairy Herd Improvement (DHI) and the MILK programs, the average SCC in 2007 was about 395,000. By the end of 2012 the average SCC was 250,000.

Dr. Jeffrey Bewley, a UK associate professor and extension dairy specialist, says changing a lot of little things in and around the barn has helped many farmers bring down SCC like pre-dipping, removing water hoses for washing cows in the parlor, individual towels per cow and focusing more on keeping cows clean in the facility.

“Those are probably the big things that we’ve had an impact with,” he says. “When the USDA changed the rule with regards to SCC, and the push started to get to 400,000, the teachable moment was there for the industry, and a lot of the dairy producers doing the math said ‘I can’t get below 400,000.’ I think at that point they needed to figure it out, so they started looking for solutions and made the changes necessary to make that happen.”

Bewley also says one reassuring thing he sees is the number of people calling not so much about how to correct a real problem but how to make good SCC numbers even better.

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“Just the nature of that kind of exchange and the types of calls that we get is an encouraging sign that people are really focused on not just getting at a regulatory level and not just getting good – they want to be great,” he says.

In addition to the strides UK Extension is making in the dairy industry is the Southeast Quality Milk Initiative, which started about a year ago and is a collaborative effort of people working together toward improving milk quality in the Southeast, says Bewley.

“One of the areas that is a little different as opposed to a lot of previous efforts is we’re really focused on the people side, more so than the cow side,” he says. “We know the science of the cow side fairly well and now we’re trying to learn the people side a little bit better.”

Brandon Fields knows the people side of the dairy business. His father and grandfather were in the dairy business, so it came very naturally to him to do the same thing.

The current operation, which is approaching about 125 cows, was mostly pasture-based before the SCC regulations changed and high numbers were not something Fields typically saw, but with some overcrowding in his freestall barn and with some older equipment, he says his SCC increased at times.

But those numbers dropped as Fields implemented several changes.

“My dad milked 35 cows and he hand-washed every one of them, dried them really good, and he didn’t have any problems,” he says. “But it’s a lot different when you try to do that with 100 cows.”

Fields says by eliminating water in the milking area, and utilizing a pre-dip and barrier dip, his SCC has sometimes dropped below 100,000 but on average is around 200,000.

Another factor in getting good SCC numbers has been keeping his cows comfortable. Fields says the use of a pack barn seems to have helped in the process.

“The pack barn did help, more because I think it relieves stress off the cows,” he says.

Fields also says the use of quality liners is something that has helped, especially with the cows that normally have a good SCC.

“I noticed on my DHI report, I can’t really tell the difference in the number of high cows, but the cows that didn’t have a problem and the ones in the middle, those cows have all dropped quite a bit. I think the Lauren [Agrisystems] liners are what did that,” he says.

Fields says testing his cows and getting a “hot-sheet” report is another step in keeping up high milk quality.

“That helps to identify cows before you have a serious problem. The cell count will come back before the cow shows any clinical signs of mastitis a lot of times,” he says. “I’ve learned after a couple of years of that to treat cows based on that number instead of waiting until I see a clinical sign. It also allows you to pull that high cell count cow out of the chain a little quicker.”

Fields says he also culled problem cows when the regulations changed, something that helped get his SCC at a desired level.

Being business smart has helped Fields keep control of milk quality and gradually grow his herd.

Dan Clark, a producer from Paducah, is all about running the dairy from a business prospective. The self-proclaimed “non-farmer” and engineer came to the dairy industry not through lineage but through marriage, so his perspective on how to run the operation comes more from his head than his heart.

“This is the last dairy farm in McCracken County; we have 900 acres and are currently milking 81 cows. We make our own feed for the most part, raise our own heifers,” Clark says of the farm at its current stage.

It is a family farm – his wife’s family’s farm, he says. “She is in the neighborhood of about the fifth-generation or sixth-generation dairy farmer, and her father started the dairy in its current location in 1964. I’ll never probably be a farmer, no matter what; I wasn’t born with that in my blood,” Clark adds.

But farming he does, even though he says he never had intentions of doing it. The family dynamics has helped along, and he says his wife loves it and he’s helping her live out her dream.

The business sense that Clark brings to the operation has paid off for the LeCows Dairy and brought the farm through a rough period.

“Ultimately, the land is worth more than the business, and if you’re going to do this from a business perspective, you need to look at assets as not being a family member,” he says.

That’s not an easy task for those with it in their DNA, as Clark notes. In fact, farming from a “love” perspective can sometimes lead to bad decisions.

Clark and his wife took over full operation of the family business from another family member by the end of 2009 only to find the dairy operation in need of repair.

That year, the couple purchased 40 dairy cows from a nearby farm that was going out of business.

Clark says he knew the cows had SCC issues but were good cows and good milk producers. What he didn’t know was how much trouble he was having with the cows he owned in relationship to SCC.

“I didn’t even know what SCC was at the time,” he says.

Clark says he began to compile data and discovered his SCC average had run in the mid-400,000s for the previous seven years. “It wasn’t officially a problem at 450,000 because at the time 750,000 was the only issue you had to deal with,” he says.

During the summer of 2009, his numbers began to rise and rise dramatically. Some months saw the SCC run to one million. Ultimately, the farm was in danger of losing its Grade A status when fate intervened by the name of Dave Roberts with the KDDC, who showed up just before the health department sent a warning letter to the farm.

Roberts returned a month later with UK’s Bewley who made several recommendations to help turn things around. That began with getting milk samples from every cow. The testing showed many problems with the cows which prompted Clark to start dumping milk and treating cows.

Bewley made other recommendations that included a pre-dip to go along with the post-dip Clark was doing, utilizing individual towels for each cow and stopping the use of water on the cows. “We changed the process,” says Clark.

He would also change his freestall barn from the 1960s model of metal sides and little ventilation to something more comfortable for the cows.

“As an engineer, I really like learning stuff, and I knew I needed to learn,” he says.

One thing he learned after hiring a nutritionist for the farm was his feed was low in protein, something that contributed to low milk quantities, so he made another change. But with all he was doing differently, Clark says the SCC numbers were still in the 400,000 to 500,000 range.

Getting under those figures seemed impossible but would have to be done in order to comply with new regulations.

Roberts had encouraged Clark to begin with DHIA reports, something he hesitated in doing at first, thinking he needed to test more than once a month. But his first DHI report showed three cows having high numbers. By utilizing the report, Clark learned that pulling out those three cows would help his SCC fall, and it did – to the 300,000s.

Next would come the KDDC premium program, and once again Clark rose to the occasion, bringing his numbers for the first time under 300,000, a goal he never thought he would reach and a goal the farm has maintained with the exception of six times since March 2011.

“There are a whole host of things that we have done over this period of time, and we’re still doing reasonably well,” he says.

Making these changes, many small and some not-so-small have helped producers in Kentucky reach goals once thought unreachable thanks to support from agencies like KDDC, universities like UK and determination like that of the Clarks and Fields, be it from the business head or the loving heart. PD

Tim Thornberry is a freelance writer based in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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