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Dairy Today Healthline

Four Benchmarks for Improved Milk Quality

Apr 09, 2012

Considering the traditional challenges and new expectations of milk quality, mastitis management is even more important than before. Here’s advice to help measure and manage your milk-quality program.

SkidmoreSmallBy Andy Skidmore, D.V.M., Ph.D., Merck Animal Health

Many years ago, Jack Rodenburg, a dairy extension specialist from Ontario, Canada, said, "All farms that have geraniums growing in the flower box outside the milk house with the lawn neatly mowed had a lower incidence of mastitis."
His point: Pay attention to the details. Taking pride in your work and going the extra mile makes a big difference in mastitis management.  
Millions, if not billions, of dollars have been spent to research every aspect of mastitis, yet it continues to be the No. 1 animal-health cost to the dairy industry.
There are many challenges that make mastitis a complex and difficult animal-health issue to manage. Part of the challenge is the number of people and processes on a dairy farm that influence mastitis and milk quality. Constantly and consistently implementing best management practices, along with monitoring for successful mastitis control, are required. Mastitis will never be eliminated, but effective control can be maintained.
New standards for EU exports
Beyond the traditional mastitis management challenges, new standards for European Union (EU) exports raise the bar on milk quality requirements. Effective April 1, milk produced for export to any EU country must have a minimum somatic cell count of 400,000 and a minimum standard plate count of 100,000. Compared to previous EU requirements, a key difference is that each individual dairy must meet these new standards; pooled milk will not be tested from multiple dairies. While a small percentage of U.S. milk is exported to the EU, the direction is clear that the U.S. dairy industry will be expected to produce higher-quality milk.
Mastitis benchmarks
Considering traditional challenges and new expectations of milk quality, mastitis management is more important than before. To measure and manage the success of your milk-quality program, consider these four mastitis benchmarks.
1.       Clinical mastitis: less than 1%
An easy way to quickly gauge how you are doing is to count how many cows are being treated for mastitis at any given time. If it is greater than 1% of the milking herd, further investigation is warranted.
2.       Cows with less than four quarters: less than 1% 
Many herds with low somatic cell counts meet all the other benchmarks for milk quality and mastitis control, until you count the number of cows without four functional quarters. A common practice to resolve an ongoing case of mastitis is to stop milking the quarter. Don’t overlook this management practice of your overall mastitis management program. Make it a goal to have 1% or less of your herd with less than four functional quarters.
3.       Culling for mastitis: less than 15%
Sending too many chronic mastitis cows to market is another way to conceal a mastitis problem. If more than 15% of all cows leave the herd because of mastitis, whether clinical or subclinical, further investigate possible causes of the increased cases.
4.       Somatic cell count: less than 200,000
The bulk tank somatic cell count is a good indicator of overall milk quality and level of mastitis in your herd. While this benchmark is twice as good as the new EU standard and almost four times better than the Grade A milk legal limit of 750,000, it is a realistic goal using best management practices. 
If you are missing the mark for any of these benchmarks, work with your veterinarian or other milk-quality expert to identify the cause, evaluate your protocols and train your employees. They may even advise you to take Jack Rodenburg’s advice to plant some geraniums and mow the lawn more frequently near the milk house.
Attention to detail always will return value to your farm in reduced treatment costs, increased quality premiums and greater customer and consumer confidence. 
Dr. Andy Skidmore is a dairy technical services manager for Merck Animal Health. He lives in upstate New York and can be contacted at 716-474-2715 or
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