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Idaho dairy battles cell count after frigid winter

Progressive Dairyman Writer Jaclyn Krymowski Published on 19 October 2017
cows at Liberty Ranch in Kuna, Idaho

Fighting to maintain low somatic cell count (SCC) is a battle in itself, but after the abnormally harsh winter of 2016-2017, Idaho dairyman John Wind is in a quality tug-of-war to return to his previous somatic cell count of under 100,000.

Wind owns and operates Liberty Ranch in Kuna, Idaho. His farm was recently featured as part of the 2017 National Mastitis Council Regional Meeting’s dairy tour this past summer. Wind is a fourth-generation dairyman who started out in California and relocated to his current location in 2005.

The dairy milks 2,600 Holsteins and traditionally has maintained a bulk tank score under 100,000 SCC. One barn, Wind mentions, steadily averaged a count of 80,000 to 90,000. “Even with the labor turn, we’ve been able to get these guys to stick to a routine that was making us extra money for the last few years,” he says. However, the aftermath from the past winter has since put that same barn at a count of 109,000. “It took me two years to get this barn where I wanted it when we first moved here,” Wind says. “It’s a battle getting it back.”

A lot is at stake in superior milk quality. Wind’s processor pays an impressive premium of 60 cents per hundredweight for farms under 100,000 SCC and 30 cents for those under 200,000, a shared incentive he passes along to his workers. “Then winter came along and nothing they did was going to get them the bonus because it was so tough,” he says. “They were just losing it. We had a couple of weeks [with SCC] in the 80s and then we’re back into the 105 to 110 range.”

He contributes the lingering discouragement from winter as being part of the struggle to his keep his workers’ motivation up. “The wintertime was difficult because of the cold weather element, such as not being able to use a catalytic dip,” he says. “The cows were stressed out, spending a lot of energy just trying to stay warm.”

He remains rooted in believing that SCC is highly impacted by the milking procedure in the parlor. “We’ll get there, but it’s compliance right now and it’s a routine issue,” he says. “They’re doing good, but they can do better.” Wind has established several on-farm protocols to guide his workers in the best possible practices, many of which focus heavily on milking procedure and employee training. He believes that keeping to a proper routine is among the most important things that can be done. “It includes everything from step A to step Z. It’s the pre-spray and the stripping routine,” he says. “For example, we’ve seen that the difference between one strip and three strips is big.” Wind has worked with his veterinarian, Dr. Damien Lettieri, in coming up with a standard protocol for the milking procedure that he keeps posted in the parlor for all his employees to see.

herd health plan

Their procedure involves a minimum of two to three strips per teat to both monitor incidences of mastitis and clear the streak canal. Cows showing signs of clinical mastitis are then pulled from the line. After milking, post-dipping should cover the entire length of the teat. Wind has found that consistently using these protocols without compensation were key in low cell counts. But in the face of a cold winter, even the strict regimen was not enough to keep cell counts down. The employees’ motivation dampened as the bonuses came out of reach, and the strict regimen slacked, something Wind is still trying to amend.

Employee training has been increasingly difficult with higher turnover rates and fewer workers. Wind holds two formal training sessions for all his employees every year, but as with most operations, many of his employees primarily learn on the job. “It takes 30 days to build a habit, and it’s been difficult,” he says. The farm milks three times a day, allowing for a lot of variance in milking shifts. He has noticed some of his crew tends to work faster and less thoroughly, especially at night. “[I tell them] I promise you as long as you’re stripping them, you’re not going to get done that much later,” he says. “Letdown’s going to be a lot faster.”

While the herd’s milk quality still hasn’t yet reached peak goals, Wind remains optimistic about where they’re at and where it’s going. “I can’t complain about the job [the employees are] doing. Milk quality is good; 109 is nothing to really cry over,” he says. “I haven’t really dropped any milk as far as averaging 84 pounds, which is nothing to really cry over either.”  end mark

Jaclyn Krymowski was a 2017 Progressive Dairyman editorial intern.

PHOTO 1: Currently the herd averages a 109,000 SCC count and is working toward getting below 100,000.

PHOTO 2: Wind has a standard milking protocol, written with the aid of his herd vet, clearly posted for employees. Photos by Jaclyn Krymowski.

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