Minnesota Milk Quality Making Progress But Not Keeping Pace
Have you ever had a day when you felt like you were dragging an anchor? Minnesota milk quality progress has been like that. Progress has definitely been made over the last three years as state dairy producers have lowered their somatic cell count (SCC) average by 100,000. That is an accomplishment worth noting, as decreasing the SCC in a herd takes effort and paying attention to detail. But we are not keeping pace with other major dairy states in the U.S. or within the Upper Midwest region.
To be clear, this concern is not about milk safety. Milk quality is different than milk safety. All milk for human consumption must meet the minimum safety standards of 750,000 SCC, under 100,000 bacteria counts and with no antibiotic or chemical residues. However, recent studies have shown that raw milk quality at the farm has dramatic effects on dairy product taste and shelf life. Therefore, milk processor demand for improvement in milk quality beyond current milk safety standards is intensifying to meet dairy product shelf life concerns. In order to meet this increasing demand, Minnesota dairy producers need to continue their efforts to improve milk quality. The past three years has shown it can be done.
The recent USDA Dairy Herd Improvement (DHI) SCC data indicates that Minnesota ranks tenth in milk quality among the top ten dairy states and 5th among our neighboring states (see table). Although it represents only 50% of the state's dairy herds, DHI milk quality data has been found previously to be a representative measure of milk quality status of all herds. A study of the table indicates that compared to other dairy states we have too many herds over 400,000 (32.2%) Only South Dakota dairies have a higher percent of high SCC herds in the Upper Midwest region. We have 3.5 times more high SCC herds in Minnesota than Washington and 62% more than Wisconsin.
It is important to point out that Minnesota Department of Ag statistics indicate that 48% of all dairies have SCCs between 200-400,000 and there is a growing number (12%) with SCCs less than 200,000. In addition, during the past few years, Minnesota has had several National Dairy Quality Award winners. However, there are about 10% of our dairies with average SCCs greater than 600,000. It is estimated that these herds represent 7.6% of the state's total cows, 5.9% of the milk produced, and 15% of the state's total SCC. Without including the milk from these herds, Minnesota's average SCC would be near 250,000, rather than the 319,000 shown in the table.
While visiting a dairy with students a few weeks ago, one of the students commented to the herd owner regarding milk quality, "You're only as good as your weakest milker." The student was right. The good work of well trained committed milking staff can be undone by one milker who doesn't consistently follow established milking procedures. This problem can be resolved by correcting or re-training that person, and providing encouragement to do the job right. If this is not possible, then the alternative of last resort is to find a new employee.
The "weakest link" analogy also holds for Minnesota's dairy industry as the state's milk quality status is only going to be as good as its poorest milk quality producers. But the solution is not so straight forward. My assessment is that the current high SCC problem is not a scientific problem — it is fundamentally an attitude problem. Too many feel that a 200,000 or less SCC is impossible, impractical or unnecessary. Considering all that is known today about controlling mastitis and reducing SCC, it is my opinion that for any herd average SCC over 200,000, the dairy must improve performance and it can be done.
Bottom line is that all dairy producers need to continue efforts to improve milk quality if Minnesota is to reach future market driven milk quality requirements. A reasonable SCC goal for every dairy in Minnesota is 200,000. If you are already there, then hats off to you. If you are steadily making progress, don't give up. If you need help in figuring out how to improve SCC on your farm, contact your veterinarian, milk plant field staff or any of us in dairy extension. You can also look for ideas on the "Quality Count$" website.
Published in Dairy Star March 24, 2007