Climate, facilities and animal handling are just a few of the things that can have an impact on the somatic cell count (SCC) of a dairy. First and foremost, however, is employee commitment and motivation.
Dairy producer Adrian Kroes has seen his herd’s SCC continue to improve since moving from Chino, Calif., to Nampa, Idaho, in 2002. Kroes favored the Idaho climate for cattle, and he also had family nearby.
“In California, we felt good if we were under 200,000 cells per mL,” he says. He estimates the SCC level was around 180,000 when he left. In Idaho, Kroes regularly sees a range of 50,000 to 70,000 cells per mL at SunRidge Dairy, LLC—a family partnership with his brother-in-law, Mike Siegersma—for the past five years.
In January, SunRidge Dairy reached a record low level of somatic cell counts, with 47,000 cells per mL for the 3,000 milking cows.
While there are likely many factors at work that attribute to that low of SCC, Kroes attributes much of the success to his employees, especially his managers.
“I think, honestly, it’s really good management,” Kroes says, giving credit for the improvement to his staff. The herd manager has been with Kroes since 1984 in California, where half of the cowherd originates. Likewise, he has a strong assistant herdsman.
“One of the things our herd manager strives for is not having the cows locked up longer than necessary,” Kroes says. Two people are sent out in the breeding van to reach cows quicker and reduce stress on the animals.
Along with an experienced management team, SunRidge Dairy has milker trainings for employees performed by local consultants at the dairy.
“You just continue to have training schools periodically just to reinforce things,” Kroes adds.
Employees stick to the fundamentals by following a set protocol at milking. Because of their consistant high milk quality, SunRidge Dairy sees increased revenue from a somatic cell bonus program through the local Sorrento Lactalis cheese plant.
“There is a real incentive for us to produce a high-quality milk and gain that bonus,” Kroes says. “They actually pay 60¢ per cwt under 100,000 cells per mL.”
While there is no added bonus for milk being under 50,000 cells per mL, Kroes is proud of the work being done by his crew. If the milk reaches the bonus mark, SunRidge Dairy shares the bonus money with the milkers to reward them for their hard work.
“Everybody has some incentive,” Kroes explains. “We’ve offered the somatic cell bonus for a number of years. I think that has been appreciated by them, too.”
In addition to paying employees for milk quality, the dairy shifted from two milkings per day to three as a way to aid in employee retention.
“We feel the 3X a day schedule with eight-hour shifts might lend itself better to finding milkers,” Kroes says. “Rather than having longer shifts 2X per day, we felt like 3X a day schedule might make it easier to find milkers.”
The 3X milkings also corresponds with the schedule of the three additional dairies SunRidge Dairy has partnered with or leased.
Swan Falls Dairy is an open lot dairy leased by SunRidge with 100% ownership in the cows. Currently, the Kuna, Idaho, dairy has a SCC around 180,000 cells per mL, which is higher than normal. Kroes blames the wet winter for the increase. Historically, the dairy averages 100,000 cells per mL.
“Black Cat Dairy, which we’re 50% partners in, is an open lot dairy with 1,500 milking cows. That dairy is around 100,000 to 110,000 right now on somatic cell,” Kroes says.
Sun Ridge Dairy, LLC just got involved in a fourth dairy with some family members on 50/50 partnership. That open lot facility has an average SCC of 90,000 cells per mL.
Part of the difference is facility design. The home farm at SunRidge Dairy is the only freestall facility within all of the business.
“I get to see the different results for a freestall versus an open lot,” Kroes says. “There are pros and cons for both.”
Kroes says open lots have their advantages, particularly in the spring and summer when it isn’t as wet. However, when it is cold or raining, he enjoys the comfort of being in the barn. The freestall barns are bedded with compost, with fresh bedding added twice per week.
“We’ve been really happy with the compost bedding. This is the high desert, so we can get it nice and dry,” Kroes says. “Comfortable cows do well.”