Milk quality ROI goes way beyond the bonus

Improve your pay-price with better milk quality (Not just the bonus, milk quality affects individual production, component yield, and total pounds out the driveway).

EAST EARL, Pa. — Milk quality and components are two things dairy farmers can work on to control some of their own destiny when it comes to their milk checks. Both topics have been highlighted at winter dairy meetings and conferences this year – especially milk quality because that is also a dairy farm’s best way to secure a milk market. 

In addition, when milk quality is not optimum, the dairy farm’s labor and input costs go up along with reduced sales, withholding milk for mastitis. Production and components also decrease when somatic cell counts increase — further reducing the farm’s milk income.

The biggest cost, according to Penn State extension educator Amber Yutzy is the reduction in milk production. That’s a triple whammy when it amounts to lactation milk losses you can’t get back, even after spending money and time and milk withhold in treating the cow for mastitis.

“A first lactation cow will start losing milk production at 200,000 SCC, losing 1.3 pounds per day,” said Yutzy. “For older cows, the loss is double at that SCC level. This really makes a difference in your milk check.”

Now look at it what happens if the cow can’t be successfully treated. Now we have the replacement costs, the next highest cost of mastitis. 

Actually, she said, the cost of treatment, labor, and milk discard are the smallest costs associated with less than optimum milk quality leading to new and chronic infections.

Using an example farm milking 75 cows with a 69-lb herd average, 309,000 SCC, 7 clinical mastitis cases, 9 mulls and 4 mortalities. The total of lost income from all aspects was $22,737 compared with the goals-example herd with 175,000 SCC, 2% clinicals, 2% death loss and 2% culls to mastitis.

During a recent dairy seminar in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania this year, Yutzy and her teammate Greg Strait gave farmers a run-through of the free service they provide through Penn State Extension to help dairies improve milk quality and udder health. 

Their step by step evaluation is something farmers can also do for themselves, but when it comes to having an accountability partner — and the benefits of another set of eyes — it’s good to know the Penn State milk quality team is there to help get things on track.

Here’s the deal on what to evaluate:

— Milk Filters: “There’s one thing on your farm that doesn’t lie, and that’s the milk filters,” said Strait. “It’s the first thing I look for. Your ultimate goal is to have that filter look as clean when you put it in as when you take it out.”

— Stall bedding: “This is very important. Kneel down. What do your knees look like when you get back up?” he related. “You want them to be clean and comfortable, not wet, and uncomfortable.”

— Bulk tank culturing is key: “You need to know what is growing on your farm,” said Strait. “If you don’t know, then you are wasting money on treatments that might not be covering ‘your bacteria.’”

— Dip, strip, wipe, apply: “The most important part of this is the ‘wipe’. It’s also very important to get that pre- and post-dip three-quarters of the way up the teats,” he said. “Don’t do the rapid two-fer. Dip each teat individually.” He noted that strip milk is not ‘wasted’ milk. It is the highest SCC milk, so you are better off without it anyway.

— Milk dry teats: Strait urged producers to make sure teats are dry before applying the milker. “This can be the most important part of the disinfecting process. If we want high quality milk, we need to use clean, dry towels and milk clean, dry teats.” One of the things he does to check prep hygiene is to take an alcohol pad across the end of the teats to see what shows up. “That’s how I check your prepping.”

— Attach units squarely aligned under the cow: This is another one of those things that can be overlooked in a hurry. Strait said consistent milkout by all four quarters is the goal and adjusting the milk unit to be squared up under her udder, is critical.

– Allow enough lag time: “Your pre-dip should be 30 seconds, teat stimulation 20 to 50 seconds and attach with a delay of 20 to 40 seconds. You want to be 60 to 90 seconds from pre-dip to unit-on,” he said. “Get out your watch and time yourself. You need that lag time for milk letdown.”

On milk flows, Strait noted that, “You want to see a continuous gush of milk and those units coming off at 4 to 5 minutes.” Putting the milker on too soon could look good at the start when that cisternal milk lets loose, but milk flow graphing will show when there is a lag between that first gush and the letdown-triggered milk from the mammary system.

Amber Yutzy talks about how milk flows can be graphed to show periods of low flow overmilking related to prep procedures, let down and lag time. 

In fact, he sees more cows dealing with the effects of overmilking from low flow at the start of milking than at the end of milking. 

“You want to see rapid milk output that peaks and then drops off,” he said. “Achieving this improves milk yield and quality. Teat end damage from overmilking makes teats very hard to clean.”

Greg Strait talks about the effects of overmilking that often occurs on the front-end of milking not just the back-end due to not enough stimulation or insufficient lag time to allow for milk letdown.

Strait noted ‘wet’ milking is preferred. “Check with a teat cup after milking every once in a while to monitor your process. The goal is to have 2 ounces of milk per quarter after milking.”

— Find your subclinicals and handle them: They are not showing signs of mastitis, but they are likely costing the most money because they become chronic. “You don’t have to treat every single one, but you do need to identify the subclinicals and know what pathogens you are dealing with.”

— The CMT is a most cost effective tool: Yutzy suggests checking milk at the 4th milking after calving to get a better reading after the colostrum production is complete. This and other methods of individual quarter testing, like the Mas-D-Tec handheld conductivity meter, help find the subclinicals. Use the method that you will commit to using as a routine practice. The DHIA report gives a composite for all the milk, not by quarter. Be aggressive by focusing intervention on milk above 200,000 SCC.

 Use an udder rub (like Udder Comfort): This is a great tool to use, especially in the first 24 hours after calving or after identifying subclinicals, Yutzy and Strait advise.

Udder edema is more costly than you think. (Udder Comfort’s recommendation is 10 to 14 applications pre- and/or post-fresh for proactive results.)

— Wear gloves to prevent the spread of pathogens across cows.

— Dip milking units in a bucket routinely while milking and change the water so you don’t spread bacteria from the outside to the inside.

— Know when to treat or eatOne of the hardest things on a dairy farm is knowing when a cow needs to go on the trailer. Culturing helps with that decision because 70% of infection types can be cured at dryoff, the other 30%, not so much.

Yutzy noted that, “Everything you do on the farm to improve milk quality also helps prevent new infections. 

“Those (clinical and subclinical infections) cost you real money,” she said. Using a video graph, she showed overmilking related to low flow occurring right when the vacuum is peaking. You want that curve to go straight up and then down, not a up, down, up.

Producers wanted to know why the cooperatives care about milk quality if they aren’t paying much premium for it anymore.

“Your quality affects the store shelf life of your milk,” said Yutzy. “High SCC breaks down the milkfat faster.”

As Strait and Yutzy demonstrated, milk quality also matters for the farmer’s income in addition to premiums because higher quality milk improves lactation yield, input costs, replacement costs, and component yield — all of these other factors improve milk income and margin as well.

“Either way, it’s your choice to make, and you are making a choice to either prevent problems and get the best quality, or you’re not,” said Yutzy. “We’re here to help.”

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