‘Udder Doc’ says environment is tops for milk quality

The first thing Dr. Andy Johnson looks at is legs. He spoke on milk quality at the 2022 Georgia Dairy Conference recently.

SAVANNAH, Ga. — High milk production and quality – the 100 x 100 quotient (100 pounds, 100,000 SCC) – is something more dairy producers can achieve today, even in the Southeast.

“Today almost all the dairies I consult for in the Southeast are under 200,000 SCC and several are getting close to being less than 100,000,” says Dr. Andy Johnson, DVM, known as the ‘Udder Doctor.’ He works on milk quality and cow comfort issues on dairy farms in 28 countries and 47 states with herds ranging from 20 cows to over 22,000 cows.

“We just have to want to do it,” he said, speaking at the 2022 Georgia Dairy Conference in Savannah. “Those in the Southeast that have put focus and effort on milk quality are successful.”

His three rules are to do what is best for the cow, do what is best for the dairy and take care of the little things every day.

He has seen it all and says the difference between success and struggle is in paying attention, knowing the herd’s trends, charting those trends, taking action, and a very big part, says Dr. Johnson, is the cow’s environment.

“The dairy industry is changing rapidly. You need to change to stay competitive. Those with high quality milk will be competitive,” said Johnson, noting that dairies producing excellent quality milk have more options in the marketplace. They have the biggest opportunities to change markets and can find a new market if something happens to their current market.

To ship high quality milk, the environment of the cow tops the list of things to look at, followed by milking routine and milking equipment.

“If the cows are not clean, you can’t win,” he said.

“The first thing I look at are the legs,” said Johnson. “The foot is the number one source of bacteria to the udder.

Dr. Andy Johnson Slide

“Do you see where that foot is positioned when she’s laying down? Right by the udder,” he said showing a slide.

Automatic flushing and scraping systems that keep alleys and walkways clean, help keep feet and legs clean.

Manure in the backs of stalls is the next thing. He pegs this goal at less than 5% of stalls in a barn showing manure.

“Bigger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to freestalls, and how far forward are the cows laying?” Johnson noted.

For milk quality, udder hygiene, and udder health, Johnson believes the number one goal a stall needs to fulfill is for the cow to lay straight and have the stall loop design that encourages this as well as the neck rail placed so she is not too far forward.

“There are high production herds with 46 inch stalls, and you can convince me to go to 48. These are 100 x 100 herds making a lot of milk, and it’s excellent quality milk,” Johnson reported.

While no one wants to see “perching” in a freestall barn, they want to see cows resting comfortably, Johnson maintains that the opposite extreme of seeing cows standing with all four feet in the stalls is also problematic for udder hygiene.

Where is the manure going to go with space at the backend, and will the cow pusher remove it all? he asked.

A key to any barn’s design, said Johnson, is to make it easy to take care of the stall beds. Grooming keeps sand and manure solids clean and dry.

Grooming stalls at least 1x/day is worth 1 to 3 pounds of milk, easily, according to Johnson. He notes that some of the best herds do it 3x/day.

He also suggested covering sand piles for the 7-day period before using the sand to keep them from getting rained on.

For cow mattresses, he recommends grooming with brooms, not scrapers and noted that mechanical grooming (i.e. the ‘sandman’) keeps sand and manure solids dry and comfortable.

Of course, no discussion of milk quality goes without mentioning sand as the lowest-risk bedding material, but also noted is the fact that manure solids are becoming more common and these herds can also ship very high quality milk. For manure solids bedding, the key is sufficient heating to reduce the bacteria and dry the solids and to pay particular attention to stall grooming.

In milking routines, Johnson said a critical part is to allow enough time between stripping and unit attachment for complete letdown. He reported that more than 75% of all overmilking is occurring at the beginning of the milking, not the end.

“Allow a minimum of 90 seconds (to 180 seconds) from forestrip to unit attachment,” said Johnson.

Other important things to look for are unit alignment and avoiding flow restrictions, proper vacuum levels and keeping track of where they are to see if they change.

The only way to test a milking system, he said, is to test it while milking.

With the advent of automation and robotics, and the many ways to monitor and record, Johnson said it is important to pick the important data and then look at that data and pay attention to the little things.

On pre- and post-dips, Johnson said mixing and storage are critical to get right.

Monitoring udder health is also important.

Bulk Tank cultures are still the best way to monitor bacteria populations in the herd, and that the industry is moving toward recognizing that there is no point in doing individual culturing unless the information is used to make decisions about whether or not to treat that cow, according to Johnson.

“If you are just going to treat every clinical case anyway, then the individual culturing is of no use because up to 75% of pathogens don’t respond to treatment. If you culture, use that information,” he said.

Reduced use of dry treatments is also something producers are encountering and it’s a shift that is coming in the future, according to Johnson.

He said well-managed dairies use teat sealant across the board and reserve dry treatments just for certain cows. Such decisions would be based on the cow’s SCC performance over the lactation and how healthy the teat ends are.

By Sherry Bunting

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