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MILK QUALITY: When You Are Out of Quality, You Are Out of Business!

The idea of opening a discussion on milk quality almost seems redundant.  After all, everybody knows the how-to processes of producing milk.  Producing quality milk isn’t rocket science.  No it isn’t.  But are we letting the familiar process lower the benchmark of the product we are producing?  Furthermore, from the cow to the container is everyone along that production line committed to the highest level of quality? Should they be? Are we able to prove it?  Do we want to?

What Does Quality Milk Mean?

Sometimes we need to start with the questions. When processors receive milk are they limited by the level of quality?  Are there products they can’t make because the quality isn’t high enough?  Are they – under pressure from retail stores and consumers – to prove that the highest standards of quality have been met?  How much more is it worth to the processor?  Is it worth it to the dairy producer? When we try to answer the questions, we find there isn’t one simple answer.  Let’s look at 8 Quality checkpoints that you may or may not be using.

1 – Quality Milk Pays for Itself

Admittedly, the quality of milk produced on your farm directly impacts your profits. But, before we even begin to look at expenses and profits of quality milk, we need to put our accounting pencils to work on the costs we are paying if our milking herd is fighting a losing battle against diseases. At the University of Wisconsin researchers addressed this problem and, along with advice on how to calculate individual farm data, they reported. “The association between herd bulk tank SCC and production losses was recently compared between herds with low SCC (<200,000/ml), herds with medium SCC (200,000-399,999) and herds with high SCC (>400,000/ml). The overall production loss for the average US dairy farm was estimated at $110/cow annually.” The researchers sum up “Lost premium opportunities, decreased milk production and discarded pails of milk are only a partial accounting of the total actual cost of mastitis on most dairy farms. Mastitis causes additional losses due to death, culling, decreased genetic gain and reductions in reproductive efficiency.” The National Mastitis Council sets the benchmark even higher placing the average cost of a case of mastitis at $184.

2 – Quality Udder Care Makes Quality Milk

Udder and teat end health is critical when it comes to avoiding instances of infection in your herd. Using a five- point scoring system can help to analyze the condition of teat ends, as well as ensuring that the bacteria-blocking keratin plug is able to fulfill its responsibilities.  Teat ends should maintain a smooth structure, avoiding any lesions or fraying, as these rough surfaces can more easily allow bacteria to enter the gland. Reports in the Journal of Dairy Science by D. M. Galton demonstrated a direct relationship between premilking hygiene procedures and both bacteria counts in milk and incidence of clinical mastitis. Numerous studies continue to prove that specific milking procedures such as predipping and forestripping are beneficial to improve milk quality. As well, milking equipment should be serviced routinely, as equipment not performing properly can cause teat end problems.

3 ­- Quality Routines Every Time

The daily parlor routine can be very often overlooked. Getting cows milked two to three times a day is a big job on its own. Ironically, some of the smallest things can make a world of difference.  Wearing gloves, making sure there is adequate predip coverage, and keeping in mind the contact time of predip before it is wiped off can have a significant impact.  Are all employees well trained and committed to following the set standards and completing them properly? Milking clean, dry, teats, is the priority.  In 1998 Smith and Armstrong divided premilking hygiene into three groups: none, minimal and full. They reported: “Herds using full preparation averaged 9 lbs. of milk per cow more than those using minimal udder preparation. They theorized the difference could be explained by improved milk let down since they observed partial let down followed by no milk flow through machine clusters for one to one and a half minutes before a second milk let down occurred when minimal teat preparation was used.”

4 – Quality is Supported by Exceptional Biosecurity

When purchasing cattle make sure proper screening takes place before these new animals join your herd. Access milk culture and production records for any information that could flag a potential problem. Quarantine incoming animals. Take steps to minimize instances of introducing a new infection to your herd.

5 – Quality Milk Starts with Quality Equipment Management

Continuous improvements and modifications of milking equipment, support quality milk production.  Equipment should never be taken for granted.

  • Always check the vacuum level at the start of each milking.
  • Test your milking machine annually and change liners at 2000 milkings;
  • Monitor bulk tank SCC closely and take prompt action to stop spread of infection.
  • Some systems monitor cows for udder health. Be sure to query the system every day regarding problem cows.

Regularly maintain all milking equipment to the highest standards.

6 – Quality Handling/Processes and Procedures

  • One milker performing the entire milking routine on a group of cows is considered the most consistent for performance and speed.
  • Always wear clean gloves when milking. Bare hands harbour up to 98% more bacteria than gloved hands. Clean gloves periodically during each milking with warm water and sanitizer.
  • Always apply clusters to clean and dry teats. Wash dirty teats and always dry with an individual paper towel.
  • A drying towel removes the most bacteria from the teat and provides extra stimulation.
  • The secret to successful drying is to make sure the teat end is wiped dry.
  • Use a clean or new filter sock before each milking.
  • Check the filter sock for clots after every milking.
  • Dry off cows abruptly – do not milk once a day.

Proper procedures provide pay-off, but only if they are done properly every time!  Staff training takes time but is absolutely necessary.  The approved milking routine should be given to every employee and posted in the parlor. Supervision and incentives will pay off.

7- Quality Means Mastitis Prevention

The most common threat to milk quality is that of mastitis. Procedures to identify sub-clinical mastitis and proper handling of identified cases is a priority.

  • Forestripping all cows is the most effective way of identifying clinical cases early. It may appear time consuming, but it actually encourages faster milking, through natural oxytocin let-down.
  • Culture milk samples. Early identification of the bacterial challenged in the herd can help with treatment choice.
  • Treat appropriately, discussing with your vet the herd history, culture results and cow history. Ensure that the appropriate withdrawal period is observed and treated cows are well marked and easy identifiable so their milk can be segregated from the bulk tank.
  •  Teat-dipping all cows immediately after every milking is the single best thing you can do to prevent new infections.
  • Ensure all teat area is well covered with teat disinfectant.

Less Mastitis = More Profit

It isn’t surprising that there is a direct correlation between managing mastitis and improving your financial bottom line.  Lower SCC means better milk quality and increased production. By decreasing the risk of infection you’ll spend less time and money on treating mastitis. You will keep your herd profitable by not having to cull as many good producers due to mastitis.

8- Quality Can Mean Significant Returns!

Every farm is different and will vary to some degree based on the variables involved. It is well worth it to do an economic analysis based on your own data.  Identify and benchmark areas for improvement.  Don’t overlook calculations regarding the annual cost of mastitis on your farm.

Looking outside of our own familiar situation can often help in providing perspective. Dairymen in New Zealand have taken quality to the forefront and consultants and trainers there project how significant it can be to their bottom line. “By halving your Somatic Cell Count (SCC) you will gain, on average, a 1.8% increase in milk production. If your herd is New Zealand’s average size of 350 cows and you halve your SCC from 300,000 to 150,000, you will produce an extra 2110kg of milk solids per year. “At last year’s milk price payout (2014) of $7.50, that’s an extra $15,750 earned.”


Are you managing all eight of these variables?  If not, why not? Investing money, time, training and equipment with the goal of improving milk quality, is the best investment you can make.  “Quality Milk is Not Expensive.  It’s Priceless!”


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