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0207 PD: Dairying in Japan

Published on 06 February 2007

Japanese dairy producers seek out ways to increase milk quality and decrease the incidence of mastitis.

Bill Gehm was most proud of the milking system he was installing at a Japanese dairy when the dairy’s owner interrupted his dinner. Sitting in a restaurant, a Japanese corporate dairy officer accompanying Gehm on his tour relayed a hurried message from the dairyman.

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“Farmer say he need other side installed as soon as possible,” the Japanese officer said through broken English. “He has problem.”

The producer’s double-5 parallel parlor was being renovated with one of Gehm’s Co-Pulsation™ milking systems. Curious, but also slightly worried, Gehm asked what the problem was.

“Cows no longer willing to go through on old side,” Gehm’s guide responded.

Gehm knew the situation meant the cows had access to both systems and preferred the new one.

Last fall, Gehm visited several dairies in Japan, spoke at a mastitis conference and installed a new milking system at a dairy milking 80 cows. He says the trip showed him that the Japanese dairy industry was just like other industries within the country – focused on quality – with workers intent on using the best possible production techniques.

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“They have to be the best and produce the best at whatever they do to be able to compete with the rest of the world,” Gehm says.

Yet Gehm said dairies were struggling to keep somatic cell counts (SCCs) down.

“I gather they were trying to get under 200,000, although they’d prefer under a 100,00 SCC level,” Gehm says.

At one farm, Gehm said he found the herd’s SCC average was 200,000 but that one in six cows had cell counts between 300,000 to 1.5 million. He described how workers prepped cows as “textbook.”

All milkers wore rubber gloves and applied a liberal pre-dip the entire length of the teat, completely covering it. Pre-dips were allowed to remain on the teat similar to the National Mastitis Council’s recommended 30-second timeframe before being removed. But that was the point the procedure deviated from the precision and detail that Gehm sees on most U.S. farms.

“People are looking for speed in the U.S. They are trying to get the pre-dip on, wipe it off, get the machine on and move on to the next cow,” Gehm says. “In Japan, nobody seemed interested in speed. They weren’t trying to get high turns per hour through the parlor. They were interested in doing the job right, instead of speed. “

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Workers would carefully clean the pre-dip from each teat and then visually inspect each teat to ensure no pre-dip remained. Strip cups were used to check each quarter before milking units were attached. Post-dipping followed the same level of care and diligence as the prepping routine. For one cow, workers might spend 30 to 45 seconds.

“It was almost like they were preparing the cows for surgery. They were so detailed,” Gehm says.

He says producers are mindful of quality because processors assess a 20 to 50 percent penalty for milk with high SCCs. In Japan, nearly 60 percent of milk is processed as fluid milk.

“People underestimate how much milk Japanese people drink,” says John Dyck, the USDA’s chief agricultural economist for Japan.

Milk in Japan is sold in 1 liter cartons, the equivalent of about 1 quart. After currency and volume conversions, the estimated cost of a gallon of milk in Japan is $7.11 – although Dyck says if Japan were processing its milk in containers that held more milk, similar to the U.S. gallon, production costs, and thus consumer price, would be lower.

Dyck says Japan’s milk consumption habits developed after World War II.

“We gave them a lot of milk powder. They put it in the schools and people just developed a habit of drinking milk,” Dyck says.

Over 40 percent of Japanese milk production occurs on Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. The island was settled by the Japanese Empire in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Settlers realized the island’s land and climate weren’t suitable for rice production. The development of agriculture, including dairying, on the island was heavily influenced by North American agriculture practices, which included milking Holstein cows. The country’s recent production data shows the average Japanese dairy cow produces 17,600 pounds of milk per year, placing the country 13th in the world for milk yield per cow per year.

Japan imports most of its dairy feed from the U.S. and Australia. Feed components such as corn and alfalfa are sent to large feed manufacturing centers where feed is ground and compacted into feed pellets. The pellets are then bagged, loaded on pallets and trucked to dairy farms where they are unloaded with forklifts.

Gehm says mastitis is enough of a concern that Japanese researchers have even looked into the effects that feed components and genetics may have on mastitis. He is optimistic that his visit, presentation and product installation will help Japanese dairy producers find new tools to deal with their milk quality concerns.

After installing and demonstrating how his product “massages” teats instead of “sucking and pinching” them, Gehm says the Japanese dairyman who is now using his product is providing evidence that supports what he has insisted for many years – that procedure may not be the only answer to producing high-quality milk and avoiding mastitis. The Japanese dairyman reports his recent SCC level is down to 260,000 from near 800,000 levels before installation.

“Here were farms that were very well-maintained, with nice sized parlors, a good layout and doing everything by the book, and yet they were still struggling with mastitis. I think the Japanese are recognizing they need something different,” Gehm says. “They are trying to find the solution.” PD

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