Lowering SCC and proper sanitation can improve the overall quality of milk

Producing a quality product is of the utmost importance when it comes to agricultural products, and dairy is no exception. Proper preparation and sanitation practices are crucial to boosting the quality of milk.

“To me, the definition of milk quality is the cell count in the milk,” Donna Amaral-Phillips, Extension Professor and Extension Dairy Specialist with the University of Kentucky, said.

Achieving higher milk quality refers to lowering the somatic cell count. “Somatic cell count (SCC) is the total number of cells per milliliter in milk. Primarily, SCC is composed of leukocytes, or white blood cells, that are produced by the cow’s immune system to fight an inflammation in the mammary gland, or mastitis. Since leukocytes in the udder increase as the inflammation worsens, SCC provides an indication of the degree of mastitis in an individual cow or in the herd if bulk tank milk is monitored,” said Michael Looper, Professor and Department Head-Animal Science with the University of Arkansas.

According to Reagan Bluel, University of Extension Dairy Field Specialist, a 250,000 cell count is considered high, and a 50,000 or less cell count is considered low.

When it comes to lowering the SCC and achieving higher milk quality, “environmental management has a lot to do with it,” Amaral-Phillips said. Producers need to evaluate things like their barn maintenance, pasture and shade tree rotation system, and treatment and handling of cows;  all of these things can contribute to the occurrence of environmental pathogens that can result in a high SCC and mastitis. If cows are kept in a clean, dry environment, are handled in an appropriate, low-stress manner and are fed and cared for with the cow’s immune system in mind, this can help boost milk quality.

Milking parlor practices

“Prepping the animal is huge,” Bluel said. Cows should be prepped with a teat dip to clean the teats and then producers should hand strip the teat for a squirt or two into a strip cup – this will allow the producer to check for any flakes or discolored milk, which indicates mastitis.

Cleaning and stripping the teat will encourage the cow to let down oxytocin, which releases the milk. A short pause is necessary before applying the milking machine to maximize milk output.

“The perfect window is 60 to 90 seconds after udder preparation,” Bluel said. It takes approximately 60 seconds for oxytocin to go from the brain to the mammary gland. Allowing that slight pause before hooking the cow up to the machine results in good milk production and good sphincter health.

“Improper milking procedure damages the sphincter and can create mastitis from bacteria.”

All milking equipment must be kept clean, sanitized and as dry as possible to avoid spreading pathogens that lead to mastitis and increased SCC, and therefore lower-quality milk.

“Make sure everyone involved (in milking) follows and understands procedures,” Amaral-Phillip advised.

“The place to cut corners is not parlor management,” Bluel added.

Cows that have a low SCC will produce 4 more pounds of milk per day than cows with a high SCC, Bluel explained. A cow with a high SCC is trying to fight off pathogens, where as a cow with a low SCC puts her time into production and she also just has a healthier mammary gland.

A cow with a low SCC count will also cost the producer less.

“The average cost of a case of clinical mastitis is $440 within the first 30 days,” Bluel said. “So prevention is huge.”

If a cow persists with a high SCC count despite appropriate management and milking parlor practices, it’s recommended that she be culled from the herd so that resources can be allocated to cows with lower SCCs.


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