While Cobblestone Milk Cooperative won't lay claim to the highest-quality milk in the U.S., you'd have to assume it's among the very elite.
"We're just a bunch of humble Southern boys, trying to do the best job we can,” says Roger Jefferson, Cobblestone president.
Modesty aside, this small group of Southern state producers, clustered in Virginia and North Carolina, enforces a milk-quality program that is unprecedented in the country.
Cobblestone offers no premiums or paid incentives. Rather, penalties start at somatic cell counts of 300,000/ml, bacteria counts of 10,000 and preliminary incubation (PI) counts of 30,000.
If the milk's bacteria count or SCC exceeds these limits in any two months of a calendar year, the producer is placed on probation and risks losing his ability to ship milk through the cooperative. In the two years since Cobblestone started, however, none of its members has ever reached the probationary stage.
"We think penalties grab someone's attention faster than incentives,” Jefferson says. "We all should be incentivized for producing good-quality milk and get paid for it. But if you slip, you get penalized.”
In fact, quality milk was one of the driving forces in creating Cobblestone, headquartered in Chatham, Va. The founding members believe high-quality milk will always be in higher demand than average-quality milk and that providing higher quality gives them a marketing edge.
"I, as a dairy producer, and we, as a co-op, understand that the consumer is looking for the best-tasting dairy products with the longest shelf life possible,” says Barry Myers, a founding Cobblestone member who is located in Union Grove, N.C.
Myers and his family milk 1,100 cows with an SCC below 100,000 and a bacteria count of 2,000. "We want to be in demand because we have the highest-quality milk here in the Southeast,” he says.
Cobblestone was formed
in January 2007 by a small group of mostly large producers. Last year, Cobblestone's 15 producers, which average 1,000 cows each, shipped just under 300 million pounds of milk. That makes it the 40th ranked dairy co-op in the country in terms of volume.
The herds' relatively large size allows each producer to fill a tankerload or two of milk per day that can be directed to points south, where fluid milk is often in short supply.
Because Cobblestone's milk must often travel 600 to 800 miles before processing, it must leave the farm in excellent condition. Such long travel times simply can't tolerate high SCC and bacteria counts.
Cobblestone's milk is marketed by Southeast Milk, Inc. (SMI), based in Belleview, Fla. "Cobblestone has exceptional quality, which allows us to move the milk where we need it, when we need it,” says Calvin Covington, CEO of SMI. "We use them as a supplement to our milk supply.”
Although neither SMI nor the processors it supplies pay a premium for the higher quality, there are indirect benefits for the producers. The number of rejected loads because milk is out of condition at arrival is "pretty minimal,” Covington says. So there are no disposal or extra transportation costs, and customers' operations aren't disrupted by out-of-condition loads.
Cobblestone is able
to maintain its quality by constant vigilance. "We're communicating with our producers weekly. If any item jumps over the assigned minimum, a phone call is made to the farm to alert the producer that something is wrong,” Jefferson says. "We spend a lot of time communicating with our producers. But with our small numbers, we're able to do that.”
Cobblestone doesn't have a field staff. But it does work with producers wherever it can to discuss possible causes of milk quality problems.
Ben Shelton, an Olin, N.C., Cobblestone member, dairy producer and veterinarian, helps troubleshoot problems. "We have a mastitis lab through our vet service, so we can help identify problems,” he says. "But in our Cobblestone herds, more of the problems are related to equipment-cleaning issues.”
The son of one of the co-op members has a day job in dairy equipment supply. He's been a godsend in sorting out some of the trickier cleaning issues and equipment malfunctions, Shelton says.
The Cobblestone herds generally do a good job of treating dry cows, he says. "But sometimes, bedding is an issue,” he adds. "If we can convert a sawdust herd to sand, that will usually help.”
And sometimes it's just a matter of reviewing parlor protocols to ensure that proper prepping, cleaning and teat sanitizing is getting done.
As it does everywhere else in the country, member dairies' cell counts can creep higher in summer. "But if you start at 200,000 or less, a 50,000 or 75,000 jump in summer will still keep you under our minimum penalty at 300,000,” Shelton says.
"Sometimes it does take an investment in facilities, converting to sand, for example,” Shelton adds. "But a lot of achieving milk quality is attitude. If you don't want to work at it, you're not going to get good results.
"As a friend of mine always says, ‘If you're gonna do what you've always done, you're gonna get what you always got,'” he adds.
Jefferson agrees. "It really goes back to management, management, management,” he says. "It's a commitment. Our producers are quality driven, they know each other and they're willing to help each other.”
"They look at each of their own farms as no more than an extension of the entire cooperative,” Jefferson explains. "And they're not willing to let each other down.”
Deductions for high somatic cell counts begin if a producer's milk averages above 300,000 for the month, with the first penalty 25¢/cwt. on all milk shipped for the month.
Those penalties climb to 50¢/cwt. at 500,000 SCC and 75¢/cwt. when SCC reaches 750,000.
Bacteria and preliminary incubation (PI) penalties are also in 25¢/cwt. increments. The first bacteria penalty kicks in at 10,000, the second at 25,000 and the third at 75,000. For PI, the first penalty occurs at 30,000, the second at 50,000 and the third at 75,000.
A SNAP test for antibiotic residues is also performed on each tanker load before leaving the farm.
The producer is also responsible for all associated costs if any milk is rejected at a plant for quality reasons.
All penalties are deposited in the co-op's operating account and not reblended and paid to remaining members.
Quality management information:
Quality Milk Starts with Quality Management
Regular Monitoring of Udder Health Status Essential Part of Mastitis Control Program
Process Control: Timely Feedback for Quality Milk Production at the Farm