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 the SCC in his herd continue to improve since moving from Chino, Calif. to Nampa, Idaho in 2002. Kroes liked the Idaho climate for cows to produce milk and he also had family in the area.
“In California, we felt good if we were under 200,000 cells/mL,” Kroes says. He estimates the SCC level was around 180,000 when he left. In Idaho, Kroes has regularly seen a range of 50,000 to 70,000 cells/mL at SunRidge Dairy, LLC – a family partnership with his brother-in-law, Mike Siegersma – for the past five years.
During January, SunRidge Dairy reached a record level at a mark of 47,000 cells/mL for the 3,000 milking cows.
There are lots of considerations to make when it comes to that low of SCC, but Kroes attributes much of the success to his employees.
“I think honestly, really good management,” Kroes says for the credit in the improvement. The herd manager has been with Kroes since 1984 in California where half of the cow-herd originated from. Likewise, he has a great 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 the management team, SunRidge Dairy has milker trainings that are performed with local consultants directly at the dairy. “You just continue to have training schools periodically just to reinforce things,” Kroes adds.
Employees also stick to the fundamentals by following a set protocol at milking. Because of the high milk quality, SunRidge Dairy has been seeing increased revenue from a somatic cell bonus program at the local Sorrento Lactalis cheese plant.
“There is a real incentive for us to produce a high-quality milk and gain that bonus. They actually pay 60¢/cwt. under 100,000 cells/mL,” Kroes says.
While there is no added bonus for being under 50,000 cells/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 relates. “We’ve offered that 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 8-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 three milkings per day correspondingly matches the schedule of three additional dairies SunRidge Dairy, LLC has partnered with or leased.
Swan Falls Dairy near Kuna is an open lot dairy that is leased by SunRidge with 100% ownership in the cows. Currently, the SCC there has been around 180,000 cells/mL, which is higher than normal. Kroes believes the wetter winter could be to blame for the increase. Historically, the dairy has been around 100,000 cells/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 4th dairy with some additional family members on 50:50 partnership. That the open lot facility just reported a 90,000 cells/mL count.
Meanwhile, the home farm at SunRidge Dairy is the only free-stall facility within all of the business.
“I get to see the different results for a free stall 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 raining, he enjoys the comfort of being in the barn.
The free-stall barns are bedded with compost and new bedding is added twice per week.
“We’ve been real happy with the compost bedding. This is the high desert so we can get it nice and dry,” Kroes says. “Comfortable cows do well.”