Economic distress focuses the mind and sharpens the thinking. The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation recently proposed lowering the federal limit for somatic cell counts (SCCs) 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: Lowering the limit would reduce the number of infected cows in the herd and the risk of new infections. It would improve fluid milk acceptability and cheese yields.
The NMC has been trying for years to bring the U.S. up to global standards. At the 1999 National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments (NCIMS), it proposed lowering the limit to 400,000. It tried again in 2001 and 2003.
Each time, it was blocked by the National Milk Producers Federation, which argued that lowering the standard is a quality issue, not a safety issue. And since the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance is all about food safety, the 750,000 level was just fine, thank you very much.
The unspoken argument has always been that some producers can't meet a 400,000 standard. But in fact, several Southern groups have been formed on the premise that they will not market milk above 300,000 SCC.
SCCs are coming down
across the country, according to Federal Milk Marketing Orders data. DHIA numbers also show a national average of 262,000 for 2008. The problem is that 22% of DHIA test days still exceed 400,000.
Since NCIMS does not meet until 2011, co-ops will have to take the lead in ratcheting down SCC limits. The key is setting substantial penalties for high-SCC milk.
At the same time, because cheese yields will improve and fluid returns will fall, quality premiums for low-SCC milk could be increased. And yes, processors might have to subsidize these premiums. Doing so would demonstrate they are serious about quality and ending the price crisis.
In the end, chronic high-SCC cows would go to McDonald's. Total milk inflows would drop as producers adjust over the coming months. And milk prices would rise as we eliminate the milk surplus.
Current SCC trends
Which cows to cull
Farm Bureau proposes lowering SCC
History of NMC action on SCCs
Cobblestone Milk sets 300,000 SCC limit