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Measure of management: Somatic cell counts trend lower

John Frey Published on 18 April 2014

In 2013, the Center for Dairy Excellence released the results of a year-long comprehensive “Pennsylvania Dairy Futures Analysis,” showing trends in dairy production, processing and consumption, as well as opportunities for future growth in Pennsylvania. We conducted this analysis with the help of the University of Pennsylvania, Penn State and Saint Joseph’s University.

When we released the results of the analysis early last year, the Center for Dairy Excellence offered 20 prescriptions intended to inspire the industry to strengthen our foothold in dairy. One of the most simplistic pieces of advice we offered in those prescriptions is that “getting better is essential.”



Regardless of whether you own a business that sells widgets, IBM computers or raw milk to local processors, you have to continually find ways to improve or your business becomes stagnant and does not grow. Without growth and momentum, a business cannot keep up with inflation or the rising cost of doing business. And eventually it will cease to exist.

This idea of “getting better is essential” was an underlining theme for all of the prescriptions, which offered a challenge for all facets of the industry. For dairy producers, our goal was to challenge them to be in the top 20 percent of all dairy farms when it comes to herd management factors, such as milk yield per cow, reproductive performance and milk quality.

With much of Pennsylvania’s landscape laid out with developments butted right up next to farming communities, it is difficult for many farms to significantly expand their operations. Therefore, the most basic way to grow milk production as a statewide industry and on individual farms is by essentially “getting better” at what we do day in and day out on the farm.

Lower SCCs = Higher milk production
One area where the nation’s dairy producers are getting better is in the area of milk quality and somatic cell counts. According to the National Mastitis Council (NMC), somatic cell count levels on U.S. dairy herds continue to trend downward, with the nation’s average somatic cell count down nearly 15 percent over the past three years.

In Pennsylvania, somatic cell counts continue to decrease month over month, with the latest Pennsylvania Dairy Industry Performance Scorecard showing January 2013’s average somatic cell count on DHI-tested herds down nearly 7 percent from a year ago.


When we conducted the Dairy Futures Analysis last year, we used data collected from a producer survey of 1,000 dairy farms in Pennsylvania to evaluate the association between somatic cell count levels and other management factors.

Herds with lower somatic cell counts also tended to have younger operators with more cows and higher milk production per cow. They were also more likely to work with a nutritionist and have a written business plan than producers with herds that had a higher somatic cell count. They have written protocols in place, and they make sure they are followed.

While we recognize not every dairy producer across Pennsylvania or in the U.S. is prepared to grow their herd, we know that to remain viable, every producer must constantly and continually explore new opportunities to grow net equity and income. Improving somatic cell counts can lead to increased milk production, improved herd health, higher premiums and, ultimately, additional income for the dairy.

A tool to compare
Recently the Center for Dairy Excellence worked with Dr. David Galligan from the University of Pennsylvania New Bolton Center to introduce a new herd analyzer tool. The Dairy Analyzer Program uses data from the Dairy Futures Analysis to offer producers the opportunity to compare their own operation to other farms in a designated “peer group.”

The peer groups with the Decisions Analyzer can be defined by herd size or as the averages within the state or within DHI-tested herds. The tool reflects how the individual farm compares within their peer group and the economic benefit associated with moving from a lower ranking to a higher one.

Currently, the center and the University of Pennsylvania are working with several herds across Pennsylvania to test the tool and the benefits it offers to dairy managers who want to track their performance against their peers.


The goal is to show producers areas they can capture the most significant returns by improving. Somatic cell counts is one area the tool evaluates.

According to the analyzer, just by taking the average somatic cell count from 246,000 to 196,000 on a herd with an average of 74 cows can mean $5,322 in additional income annually. To be in the top 20 percent of all DHI-tested herds with 50 to 150 cows in Pennsylvania, a herd would have to average 140,000 or less in somatic cells annually.

The fact that somatic cell counts are steadily declining, both within Pennsylvania and across the U.S., demonstrates a commitment dairy farm families have to producing a quality product.

Having well-developed best management practices to ensure consistency and accuracy in your milking and prepping process can go a long way in helping you reach your milk quality goals.

Knowing how your herd compares to others and what economic losses are associated with poor milk quality could also be additional incentive for your management team and employees to focus even more on lowering those somatic cell counts and improving milk quality.

For more information
The complete Dairy Futures Analysis is available online. Information on somatic cell and other herd performance trends is available in Chapter 2: “On-farm Production Trends.”

Learn more about the Dairy Analyzer Tool and how your farm compares to farms included in the Dairy Futures Analysis. You can access the tool as a guest user to view the results already included within the tool. To participate in the full Analyzer Tool, contact the Center for Dairy Excellence by email or by calling (717) 346-0849. PD

john frey

John Frey
Executive Director
Center for Dairy Excellence