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High-quality milk requires multiple management strategies

Melissa Hart for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 April 2017
Pam Ruegg maoderated a panel

The definition of “high milk quality” and standards for acceptable udder heath are continuously becoming more rigorous, and dairy producers who wish to remain competitive must meet or exceed these evolving standards.

Pamela Ruegg, a professor and extension milk quality specialist from the University of Wisconsin, shared her expertise on excelling in milk quality and moderated a panel discussion at the recent Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference in Frankenmuth, Michigan.

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“Producing high-quality milk is absolutely required to market milk globally,” Ruegg said. The U.S. dairy industry is increasingly dependent on exports and “producing high-quality milk is only going to be more important in the future; it’s the cost of maintaining market access.”

High-quality milk is tied to lowering the somatic cell count, which is all about management and excelling at udder health. Ruegg has developed her top five actions for excelling at udder health and shared those at the conference.

1. Cull chronically infected cows

This would include all cows diagnosed with mycoplasma bovis infection or with chronic staph aureus infections, cows with multiple quarters affected by mastitis, cows with more than two clinical cases in one lactation and cows that maintain high somatic cell count over two lactations.

2. Reduce bacterial exposure of teats of high-risk cows

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“Choice of bedding has an enormous influence on milk quality,” Ruegg said. While sand is a popular option, many dairies are moving toward manure solids to manage environmental restrictions. Bedding should be more than 75 percent dry matter, and cows should not be calving in areas where you would not feel comfortable lying down.

3. Develop and keep a professional workforce

While it may sound simple, a vital truth is: People who work with cows should be people who like cows. Most welfare issues have been the result of poorly trained workers who are insufficiently managed, don’t have appropriate tools and should never have been hired. Ruegg maintains that training the workforce and having a routine milking time will yield a lower rate of clinical mastitis.

4. Use antibiotics only on cows that will benefit

Only about 40 to 50 percent of the clinical cases of mastitis will benefit from use of antibiotics.

5. Think about eating lamb chops

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Ruegg commented, “We need to look at every management practice like you are about to eat a lamb chop.” Sharing the story of when her son first realized lamb chops came from young lambs, Ruegg said we need to keep in mind what the consumer is thinking and make sure we are confident we can defend all of our management practices to the public.

She offered a list of considerations, including: Are our animals free of pain? Are they free of fear? Do they have sufficient, dry resting space? Do they have good quality of life? Are producers comfortable explaining to non-ag friends why we do what we do?

After her presentation, Ruegg moderated a panel discussion with two veterinarians and a producer – Dr. Roger Thomson with Team Management Concepts, Dr. Mark Fox with Thumb Veterinary Services and Marco Verhaar, a dairy producer from Bad Axe, Michigan.

Verhaar moved from the Netherlands with his family and grew up working on his father’s farm. “When I told my dad that I wanted to milk Jerseys with robots, he said, ‘Jerseys are the high-somatic-cell cows, and robots tend to increase somatic cell counts, so good luck ever producing high-quality milk.’” Verhaar continued, “It’s always fun to prove your father wrong."

"Now I milk 520 Jersey cows with nine Lely robots, and the last three years I’ve been averaging about a 66,000 somatic cell count, and I don’t treat any cows for mastitis.”

When the cows are dried off, they are taken to his father’s farm for the dry period and are calved in there as well. After they freshen, they go back to his dairy.

Verhaar’s approach to detecting mastitis is through visual evaluation. “I’m not a computer guy, so I spend most of my time with the cows, so I will look for swollen quarters myself.” His criteria for culling an infected cow is based on stage of lactation and production level. He currently has 12 three-quartered cows in his herd.

Verhaar said, “If we are doing everything possible to make sure this cow has the least chance of getting mastitis and she does [get mastitis], then I strongly believe she does not belong in my herd. Not having her in the herd will prevent her from passing it on to my other cows.”

Fox added that while other dairymen will milk out their high-cell-count quarters in a separate line or treat quarters for mastitis, in Verhaar’s herd, there is no hospital pen. He does not treat for mastitis, and there are no cows omitted from being milked in the tank; all of the milk goes in the bulk tank. Fox stated, “Today, mastitis management is all about prevention.”

Getting to a low somatic cell count was a process Verhaar had to work through. After learning as much as he could from professionals, he began to fine-tune the robotic system. Because the robots weren’t leaving as much residual milk in the udder as Verhaar believed was good for the cow, he changed the setting of the “total unit on” time because that was a way to get the units off faster.

He also found liners that he prefers and changes them often. Verhaar stressed that it’s not just one thing that makes the difference; several management tools are being used to produce high-quality milk.

Fox said different producers have different protocols. “I set up protocols for treating mastitis that are farm-specific. My protocol for Marco would be vastly different than many (producers) in this room.”

He continued, “We have to be quite sensitive to the fact that animal well-being and suffering is multi-faceted. When we detect disease in an animal, what we do to extend time on that farm for the animal is important.”

Dry treatment is also a crucial part of Verhaar’s protocol as he dry treats every cow. Ruegg said, “The selective dry cow treatment issue is tremendously faddish right now; the vast majority of cows in the U.S. are receiving dry cow treatment in every quarter, and the vast majority should be receiving it.”

As far as post-dipping, Verhaar emphasized that it is money well spent on a good post-dip to keep the teats healthy and the somatic cell count low. Ruegg added that with pre-dipping, the effectiveness does not necessarily depend on the brand of dip you use but the application of the dip, in addition to the milking procedures and the design of the parlor. Thomson commented that you get what you pay for with teat dips.

Fox concluded that in order to get high-quality milk, every area of the farm should be evaluated. He challenged, “Do you have a culture of milk quality on your farm?”  end mark

PHOTO: Pam Ruegg moderated a panel discussion on udder health with (from left) Dr. Roger Thomson, Marco Verhaar and Dr. Mark Fox. Photo by Melissa Hart. 

Melissa Hart
  • Melissa Hart

  • Freelance Writer
  • North Adams, Michigan

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