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Milk quality starts in the barn

John T. Tyson Published on 09 August 2013

The foundation of all mastitis control programs revolves around two very simple things. One is reducing the amount of bacteria on the cow’s teat, and two is preventing those bacteria from getting into the cow’s udder.

Three areas need to be addressed when attempting to achieve progress on these two factors: milking equipment, milking technique and the environment itself.

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We spend large amounts of time and money adjusting vacuum levels, pulsation rates and ratios, and developing SOPs for milking.

However, I would suggest these measures cannot succeed if we continue to present cows to milkers with teats covered with organic material and bacteria.

There is ample evidence that the frequency of intramammary infection is directly related to the level of exposure of the teat to bacteria.

However, we tend to ignore management’s responsibility to present a clean udder to the milker. The number one factor in controlling environmental mastitis is just that, the environment.

Milk quality starts with clean cows, and clean cows start with comfortable cows. Proper design, management and maintenance of facilities are a necessity if we are going to control the bacteria level on the cow’s teat.

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When designing and building stalls, you do not want to sacrifice cow comfort and production for ease of maintenance.

Stalls need to be wide enough, long enough and high enough for cows to easily enter the stall, position themselves with all four feet on the stall bed and then easily lie down in a comfortable resting position.

Three elements of the stall that can interfere with this are the stall front, neck rail and brisket locator. Stall fronts need to be either open enough or far enough forward for the cow to easily lunge forward when she decides to rise.

If she can’t get up, often she will not lie down. As for the neckrail, remember its purpose is to position the cow before she lies down. However, it should not force her to perch in the stall (i.e., two feet in and two feet out).

The combination of height above the stall bed and position forward of the rear curb should allow her to stand with all four feet in the stall while barely touching the neckrail. The distance from the rear curb to the brisket locator defines the body space.

If the body space allowed by the stall doesn’t match the body space of the cow, comfort suffers. When she can’t comfortably get her whole body onto the stall bed and is hanging over the rear curb, you often see a restlessness in her lying.

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It is preferable to see enough body space that the rear of the cow is forward of the curb edge. In this position, cows with tails will often bring their tail up onto the stall and out of the manure in the alley.

Yes, this means she may manure in the rear of the stall, but that is where stall maintenance comes into play. A very comfortable stall means it is used more often and therefore will require more maintenance. Freestalls are not “free” of maintenance.

Even the best-designed facilities are doomed to failure without proper and continuous maintenance. Poor bedding and stall maintenance are common reasons good designs become completely dysfunctional and result in filthy udders being presented to milkers.

Good stall hygiene starts with regular stall grooming. A minimum of three times per day is recommended, where manure, urine and dirty bedding are removed from the stall and the remaining bedding is leveled.

Often something as simple as grooming the stalls an extra time or two per day will have a large impact on cow cleanliness. Next, fresh bedding should be added at least two to three times per week. The more often bedding is added, the more consistent the comfort of the stalls.

Along with stalls, alleys and lanes need to be cleaned at least two to three times per day. In high-density facilities, scraping alleys an additional time per day can once again have a large impact on cow cleanliness.

The bottom line is that reducing exposure of the cow’s teat to bacteria needs to be a primary concern in any mastitis control program. Getting cows clean cannot be totally conducted at milking.

It must begin with proper housing design, proper bedding, ongoing maintenance and attention to the details that result in bringing cows to milkers that are not only dry and comfortable but also clean if we are to maximize milk quality and ensure profitability. PD

For more information on freestall design and management, visit their website to download a copy of Dairy Practices Council Guideline “DPC-1: Planning Dairy Freestall Barns.”

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John T. Tyson
Agricultural Engineer
Penn State Extension

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