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RSS By: Jim Dickrell, Dairy Today

Jim Dickrell is the editor of Dairy Today and is based in Monticello, Minn.

Lower Cell Counts to 400,000

Sep 15, 2009

By Jim Dickrell

It’s amazing what economic pressure can do. The Wisconsin Farm Bureau recently proposed that the Federal limit for somatic cell counts be lowered to 400,000 cells/ml.

Its reasoning: Increasing the milk quality standard would immediately remove unneeded and unwanted milk from the market.

There are, of course, numerous other benefits. Uninfected cows would be less likely to become infected when high cell count cows are culled, usually those with Staph. aureus or Strep. ag. Fluid milk on store shelves and in consumers’ refrigerators would last longer. Cheese makers would see higher yields in their cheese vats.

In fact, everybody wins. All of these benefits make sense any time. They always have. But maybe this time, economics will be the driving force.

The National Mastitis Council (NMC) has been trying for years to bring the U.S. somatic cell count standard up to global standards. In fact, it was 10 years ago when NMC proposed lowering the SCC maximum to 400,000. The group tried again in 2001, and again in 2003. It failed each time, blocked by the National Milk Producers Federation. NMPF argued that lowering the current standard was a quality issue, not a safety issue.

And since the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance is all about food safety (and whether milk house screen doors swing in or out), the 750,000 level was just fine, thank you very much.

Other opponents argued dairy producers needed time to adjust. So the 2003 NMC  proposal did just that. It proposed ratcheting down the 750,000 limit in increments until the 400,000 level was reached in 2011. Had the proposal passed, we’d be well on our way to the 400,000 limit. But no dice.

The unspoken argument, once you got by the food safety smoke screen, has always been that some producers, notably those in the Southeast, simply can’t meet the 400,000 standard. But even that’s been disproven. In fact, several dairy farmer groups in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida have been formed on the premise that they will not market milk above 300,000 SCC (See my story on Cobblestone Milk back in April).

The good news is that somatic cell counts are coming down across the country, according to Federal Milk Market Order data. The latest DHI numbers also show a national average of 262,000 for 2008. The problem, of course, is that 22% of DHI test days still exceed 400,000. And it’s this milk that the Wisconsin Farm Bureau policy would target.

Lowering the somatic cell count limit reduces risk of new infections in herds because it reduces the number of infected cows in the herd. It improves fluid milk acceptability and cheese yields. And doing so now would eliminate milk that is not needed and is certainly not wanted. Why has it taken so long?

—Jim Dickrell is editor of Dairy Today. You can reach him via e-mail at

This column is part of the Dairy Today eUpdate newsletter, which is delivered to subscribers biweekly and includes dairy industry analysis, dairy nutrition information as well as the latest dairy headline news. Click here to subscribe.


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COMMENTS (120 Comments)

I am a small, 60 cow dairy. But these farms you are calling factory farms, are almost always owned by families - maybe instead of supporting 1 family - they support 2 or 3, and offer jobs to others, but they are still family owned farms. It is just consiladition that has occured in ag for decades. The economy has pushed us this direction - currently, I look at my operation and say if I was milking 20-30 more cows I'd probably be breaking even... that's how it is on many dairies - milk more cows to divide the debt over more cows and more income. The dairy industry is hard to make money in - and the economy has forced us to get bigger dairies in order to make ends meet. 15 years ago, my family milked 30 cows, now we are at 60, and by the end of next year we will probably hit close to 70. We are still a small farm, but no matter how you look it at, we will have nearly tripled our size in 15 years. Most dairies have grown much faster, I'd admit that. But 98% of dairies are family owned farms. Stop spreading around the false evil that is already hurting our industry - stop helping PETA.
7:12 PM Sep 28th
your father was wise and had vision
5:40 PM Sep 28th
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