Operating a modern dairy farm means being responsible for and committed to caring for animals around the clock. From milking the cows twice a day -- 365 days a year -- to caring for newborns and feeding the herd several times a day -- again, 365 days a year -- owners and farm managers must keep a close eye on all the details to keep the farm running smoothly. Add to the typical daily routine the mix of research trials and a revolving student labor force, and it becomes even more challenging.
The crew at the Michigan State University (MSU) dairy farm has been able to overcome these obstacles for two consecutive years to be awarded the distinction of being a National Dairy Quality Award (NDQA) Platinum level dairy farm. Winning the top-rated NDQA Platinum award essentially means that the farm produces the highest quality milk that can be produced. Last year, the farm's somatic cell count averaged 62,000 cells/ml and its raw bacteria count averaged 1,000.
To receive this award is a tremendous accomplishment and it is considered the”gold standard” of awards. This year the award was presented to the top seven dairy farms in the country that achieve extraordinarily high marks for milk quality. Official bacteria and somatic cell count (SCC) tests measure the milk quality level; low bacteria and SCC levels indicate higher levels of milk quality.
Bob Kreft manages the 135-cow dairy farm, located on the MSU campus in East Lansing. Kreft, along with four other full-time employees, oversee the day-to-day operations on the farm. The dairy farm workforce also includes 22 part-time college students.
"Achieving high-quality milk takes a commitment to detail each and every time the cows are milked,” says Gary Trimner, director of quality control for Michigan Milk Producers Association (MMPA), the cooperative that markets the milk from MSU. "It is quite remarkable that the MSU Dairy has achieved this award for two consecutive years. It is not an easy task.”
Kreft attributes the dairy's success to changes in animal bedding and training the employees. "It has been a lot of small things that have had a cumulative effect,” he says.
The first step the dairy made to improve the milk quality was to change the type of bedding material used in the cow stalls. Switching from green sawdust bedding to kiln-dried sawdust lowered the number of mastitis cases in the herd and subsequently lowered the SCC in the milk. As the somatic cell levels dropped, the employees were challenged to see how low the count could go.
"It became a bit of a game for the students to see how low the count could get,” Kreft says. "Everyone was getting excited to see the quality levels go up and they worked harder than ever to achieve the best results we could. It was really a team effort by everyone.”
In addition to bedding changes, the MSU crew also made changes in the milking routine. Using lab reports from Dairy Herd Improvement (DHI), the employees can spot any cows that may need individualized medical attention. Knowing which animals may have concerns, the crew can manage the cows appropriately.
"If we think a cow may have a problem, we use a California Mastitis Test (CMT) to determine which quarter may be infected. We then use a quarter milker (to milk out an individual quarter) to separate the milk from that quarter from the rest of the milk going into the bulk tank,” Kreft says. "All the milk is tested here on the farm before the milk truck even leaves the farm and then once again at the milk plant before it is unloaded from the truck.”
Winning national recognition for high quality milk is nice, Kreft believes, but the motivation for producing high quality milk goes farther than winning awards.
"We take pride in knowing that we are shipping a high-quality product, everyday, that consumers can trust and enjoy,” he remarked.
The MSU Dairy Farm herd consists of 150 milk cows and 150 heifers and calves. Cows can produce an average of 28,000 pounds of milk per year -- which is equivalent to 9.5 gallons or 85 pounds per day. The cows are all purebred Holsteins.
The MSU Dairy Teaching and Research Center
is one of six working farms located on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing. It serves as a hub for teaching, Extension and research and is the setting for coursework and practical learning experience for students studying animal science and large animal clinical science and for Extension programs. Research is conducted in nutrition, mammary and reproductive physiology, animal breeding and selection, and dairy management.