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Quality and engagement: Two sides of the same coin

Ximena del Campo for Progressive Dairyman Published on 30 September 2016

High-quality milk is the ultimate goal of any dairy operation. Normal milk from high-producing cows is composed of water, fat, protein, sugars, minerals and other additional trace components. The quality of milk is still determined on the farm, and milkers have an important job in protecting the udder from infections and maintaining milk quality.

There are several different methods and metrics used to determine milk quality. We will be reviewing somatic cell counts (SCC) and bacterial counts, both mandated by the federal Grade “A” pasteurized milk ordinance, as well as lab pasteurized count and coliform count. There are also other non-mandated methods for monitoring milk quality that might help in diagnosing potential problems.

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Somatic cells are composed of white blood cells found in normal bovine milk. A high SCC level is an indication of the level of mastitis infection in a herd. An elevated SCC will reduce the quality of milk, resulting in decreased shelf life, lower herd production, loss of quality milk premiums, reduced cheese yields and so on.

Many processors are requiring that SCCs be below the 400,000 mark, even though the regulatory limit is much higher. Milk quality premiums are offered at lower levels. The SCC of a non-infected cow in the herd is usually less than 200,000 cells per milliliter.

Bulk tank SCC is a metric used to identify the prevalence of subclinical mastitis in a dairy herd. Having a lower number will improve milk yield and decrease economic loss due to mastitis. This number should be set by each farm, but a bulk tank SCC less than 250,000 is achievable for many dairy farms.

The other big measure for milk quality is standard plate count (SPC) or bacterial count. SPC measures the total quantity of bacteria colonies in 1 milliliter of raw milk after it has been incubated on a solid agar plate for 48 hours at 90ºF. The number of colonies of bacteria that grow are counted and should be less than 5,000 colony-forming units (cfu). This is a great indicator of sanitation in the dairy herd and proper milk cooling.

There are two additional tests that can be performed which measure and identify the source of milk bacteria: lab pasteurized count (LPC) and coliform count. LPC is very similar to SPC; it measures bacteria that survived the pasteurization process at 143ºF for 30 minutes. This practice should kill pathogens causing mastitis that live in the udder as well as environmental bacteria.

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Bacteria not destroyed by the pasteurization process are counted using the SPC method and are expected to be lower. An LPC of 200 colony-forming units per milliliter is considered high; anything lower shows adequate equipment sanitation. An LPC that has less than 10 colony-forming units per milliliter shows excellent equipment hygiene.

Coliform count estimates the number of bacteria that come from manure and the environment. Coliform bacteria can contaminate milk through poor udder preparation; it may reflect milking cows with wet and manure-soiled udders and teats. This test is performed on raw milk samples and should be less than 100 colony-forming units.

Employees and quality of milk

Labor is a very important and costly input on dairies, and farm managers need to know if employees are being effective, efficient and productive. It is important that personnel working with dairy cows understand that the milk they are harvesting will be for human consumption.

Stress levels at the parlor need to be minimal when handling cows, and proper handling techniques will promote a disposition to be milked, resulting in a good milk let-down.

A consistent, calm operating routine is important for the animal’s well-being, teat health and milk let-down, which are essential in preventing mastitis. A milking environment that constantly puts cows under stress can make them susceptible to a greater risk of mastitis.

Proper milking procedures, the use of gloves and a clean environment are required to harvest quality milk. The milking parlor and stall bedding should all be kept clean and dry to prevent excessive bacterial growth. Milkers should be vigilant and understand what conditions may spread mastitis from cow to cow and correct them. But this can only be achieved if and when they understand why they do what they do.

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Workers responsible for milking cows should be properly trained, need to be able to follow routines and understand the importance of each step. A written standard operating procedure (SOP) that defines handling practices and proper milking techniques is a must.

SOPs should cover the importance of keeping cows calm and clean before milking, consistent cow prep, timing, proper attachment and removal of units, hygiene and management of cows post-milking. It should also cover what to do when a cow gets mastitis.

The quickest way to know if workers are following SOPs is to check how much time they are taking in relation to what is expected per the SOP. Standard procedures take standard time; if someone is too slow, they are not trained properly, and if someone is too fast, they are skipping steps.

SOPs are the only way for farmers to ensure consistency in operations. This is especially true when there are multiple shifts being worked on the farm. SOPs also reduce the training period for new employees in addition to the trainings being more consistent.

Together, the SOPs and training, being two sides of the same coin, deliver consistency in handling cows, which in turn delivers quality of milk. They will empower the workforce, support the farm goals, ensure consistent results, save time and help avoid mistakes, to name a few.

The power of incentives

A motivated workforce will help you achieve the farm’s productivity levels and run in a more efficient manner. Applying a reward system that aligns with the organization goals of the farm is one way of motivating employees. While wages are an important part of an incentive program, it’s not only about money.

Employers need to take a holistic view of what motivates their workforce. Teamwork, camaraderie, empowerment all play a significant role in incentivizing a team. The most important thread that pulls it all together is a vision for the farm.

Farm owners need to explain to workers what is the goal of the operation, on a production level (day-to-day goals of shipping product), and quality goals around minimization of waste. In addition, what is the plan to improve the long-term outlook of the farm? Is it operational expansion or improving efficiency?

This might seem an overkill from a farmer’s point of view; however, as is true in all other teams, it is critical for there to be worker buy-in. This, in turn, will drive employees to own elements of that vision and strive together toward that vision.

Don’t forget to celebrate milestones. Managers should celebrate the accomplishment of milestones like achieving a lower SCC, LPC or coliform count in a collaborative climate. It’s important employees understand it is a group effort and co-workers help each other thrive.

Last but not least is money, of course. Money is a motivator to a certain extent; however, lack of it is a huge de-motivator. If the workforce is not paid decent wages, they will constantly worry about money, and this will show in them making mistakes, causing operational losses and discomfort, or even injury to the cows.

One of the key indicators that workers are not being paid what they consider decent is turnover rate.

If your farm is just a revolving door where people come and stay until they find something that pays a little more, it will cause turmoil in the workforce on multiple fronts. For one, turnover is contagious.

One worker will move to a new farm and send word that money is better at the new place and encourage others to move. Since you will need to backfill and train new people, it will cause disruption and significant costs.

Any new worker will take weeks to start contributing positively to the operation. In fact, as is clear, a lot of the costs of this scenario are hidden. So it is important farmers take a holistic view of costs; it’s a lot more than just the hourly wages for the workers.

To summarize, the quality of milk produced depends directly on the training and engagement of well-trained employees and inspiring leadership.  end mark

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Ximena del Campo
  • Ximena del Campo

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  • Indujel
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