Milk quality is dependent on three key areas: milking routine; cows and their environment; milking equipment.

I refer to the interaction of these three areas as the “mastitis triangle.” A common reason why many milk quality programs fail is that people fail to look at all three areas together, and all causes of the problems are not identified.

Milk quality is really a numbers game. The less bacteria on the cow’s teat at milking time means less risk of new infections. The numbers game fits the entire dairy operation. Cleaner cows have less bacteria. Cleaner milking equipment has less bacteria. A good milking routine has less bacteria. The bottom line is clear – the less bacteria, the less risk to mastitis.

The milking routine is critical to the production of quality milk. People need to clearly understand there are huge economic differences between different regions of the United States, so the significance of quality milk can be different in all these areas. In my opinion, extra money in quality premiums should not be the driving force to producing quality milk because research has clearly shown herds with lower SCC make more profit by the production of more milk.

Under most circumstances, the milking routine can be the key reason for the production of quality milk. The secret is to make sure everyone on the dairy farm clearly understands the importance of a consistent milking routine and implements this routine at every milking.


On the vast majority of dairy farms I consult with, fine-tuning the milking routine is necessary to get to the new level of milk quality everyone wants. To have success in changing a milking routine, you have to implement procedures that clearly demonstrate the need for change. When milkers can clearly understand the need for change, you are much more likely to succeed in the implementation of any change.

One of the biggest misconceptions of most dairies is that they do not have the time to do all the necessary steps of a milking routine. Many dairies are so driven by efficiency that they lose focus on quality milk. Based on dairies ranging from 100 to over 10,000 cows, a dairy can use a full milking routine to get the desired efficiency and produce higher quality milk. Cutting corners in the milk routine usually increases milking time, not shortens it.

When evaluating a dairy during milking, the most important factor I look for is consistency of the milking routine. Having a milking routine everyone can follow at every milking is very important. Once I have evaluated milking practices long enough to understand the farm’s normal routine, the next thing I look for is timing. Recent studies have clearly demonstrated that regardless of the region of the country a dairy farm operates in, there are definite economic benefits to having a good milking routine with the right timing.

The studies show the ideal lag time from the start of the milking routine to unit attachment is 60 seconds. On many of the dairies I consult with, there is a wide variation in lag time depending on who is doing the milking. On the dairies with inconsistent timing, many of the cows do not have adequate letdown prior to unit attachment. I call this “overmilking” at the start of milking. Overmilking is simply the time the cow’s teat is exposed to high vacuum during low flow of milk.

A quick and easy way to determine if the proper lag time has existed is to examine the teats prior to unit attachment. If the teats are swollen with milk, you know the stimulation and lag time is good. When the teats are empty, you know the units are being applied too soon, and there is a greater chance of udder health problems and longer milking times. Overmilking is much more common at the beginning of milk in larger dairies, rather than at the end of milking.

There are basically two ways to implement a milking routine: territorial or sequential. Territorial is where one milker works in a group of cows and does the entire milking routine for that group. Sequential is when multiple milkers do single tasks throughout the whole parlor. Without a doubt, a territorial milking routine will give you the most consistent milking performance and fastest milking.

One of the hardest things to accomplish on a dairy is to develop a milking routine that everyone understands and can easily follow. Many of the milkers have milked at various other farms and tend to utilize the skills acquired from those farms. It is not uncommon to see three or four different routines on each farm. I try to look at the advantages of each routine, and then develop a routine that gives the dairy the best of what is already being done. This leads to better milking performance and milk quality.

Every milking routine should start by having the milkers wear milking gloves. In my experience, hands are a common source of bacteria to the cow’s udder. Hands are a common source of Staph aureus which is a common contagious bacteria affecting most farms. Wearing gloves is important. However, keeping the gloves clean is equally important. Gloves can be cleaned periodically by sticking them in a bucket of warm water and sanitizer or by using automatic faucets to clean them in a parlor. Milking with clean gloves is an important way to reduce the level of mastitis on any dairy operation. If milkers are not using gloves, I feel it is enough of a reason to terminate them from employment.

Every milking routine must properly sanitize the teat skin and teat end. The real secret to producing quality milk and reducing the level of clinical mastitis on any dairy is to reduce the bacteria numbers as much as possible on the teat skin prior to unit attachment. There are many different ways to accomplish this, but most dairies are now using predip to sanitize the teats. Predipping is an excellent way to control environmental bacteria, as well as Staph aureus, which tends to colonize on the teat skin.

What people fail to understand is that the best milking routine possible will only reduce bacteria numbers by 85 percent. Unfortunately, I see few perfect milking routines used. What is important to understand is if the cows enter the parlor cleaner, there will be less bacteria to remove from the teats. Reducing bacteria numbers is important throughout the whole 24-hour period.

In order to make predipping more successful, two things must happen. The predip must cover the entire surface of the teat that will be inside the teat cup during milking as well as be on the teat long enough to kill the bacteria. My goal is to have 75 to 90 percent of the teat surface covered with predip and have it on the teat for a minimum of 20 to 30 seconds.

An easy tool to use to see if teats are getting proper coverage is to use a white paper towel. Wrap it around the teat, and see how much of the teat has been covered with dip. Do not assume the teat has been properly sanitized just because a teat dipper is being used.

In my consultation practice, forestripping is a critical step in the production of quality milk. In a study done by a national milking machine manufacturer, it was clearly shown that cows that are forestripped will have higher flow rates and milk close to one minute faster. In other words, you can spend a few more seconds prepping a cow because the shorter milking time will make up more than that difference.

My experiences have shown that herds that forestrip will have faster milking, lower somatic cell count (SCC) and actually get more milk production.

Forestripping should be done either as the first step prior to predipping or immediately after predipping. The argument for forestripping after predipping is the milkers find it easier to strip a wet teat, and they will work the predip into the teat skin and do a better job of cleaning the teats. The only thing that matters to me is to make sure the teats are never forestripped after drying because the teats are then recontaminated with bacteria and the lag time will be too short.

The most important step in both the cleaning and stimulation of the teat is drying. The drying towel removes the most bacteria from the teat and provides extra stimulation to the teats. I find it difficult to understand how many dairy farmers try to dry teats with wet towels. It doesn’t make sense. If the teat end is not properly cleaned, the dairy will have more problems with environmental mastitis.

When wiping the teats dry, the milkers must make an actual pass across the teat end. I recommend wiping the four teats with one side of the towel, then flipping the towel and cleaning the teat ends. If the milkers wipe the teats dry in a circular motion, it is very easy to wipe the teat ends dry without spending any additional time. Getting the teat ends clean will increase stimulation to the cow, will decrease environmental mastitis and reduce the level of hyperkeratosis on the teat end.

The best way to monitor how good of a job milkers are doing cleaning the teat ends is to wipe the teat ends with an alcohol pad prior to unit attachment. Oftentimes, the teat walls are very clean, but the teat end is still covered with manure. The teat end is the most important piece of real estate on any dairy operation.

Once the teats have been properly cleaned, the units need to be put on the teats with as little air admission as possible. The more air that is leaked in during attachment, the more irritation there is to the udder, and milk quality can suffer. If properly trained, 95 out of 100 teats should have the teat cups put on without any audible air leaks. I understand this is being picky, but it does make a difference in the total milk quality program.

After proper unit attachment, every milker needs to take a few seconds and properly align the unit on the udder. The key is to make sure the unit hangs squarely on the udder so liner slip in minimized. Poor unit attachment is a common cause of poor milkouts and liner slip. It doesn’t matter if you have a parlor or stanchion barn, unit alignment must be done.

All units need to come off when the cow is done milking. Many dairies are now using automatic take-offs (ATOs) which have been very beneficial. ATOs bring consistency to milking, regardless of who does the milking. The key is to make sure the ATOs are properly set so they come off when the cow is done milking and do not overmilk the cows.

Once the units are removed from the cow, I would like to see the teats dipped with an effective teat dip. My idea of proper teat dipping is a teat that has 75 to 90 percent coverage on the entire teat. Since the milking machine is one of the best washing machines ever built, the teats are bathed with milk during the milking process. In my mind, the key reason to teat dip is to remove the milk film left on the teat after the machine comes off. If milk film is left on the teat, the film will provide food for bacteria to grow, especially in facilities with organic bedding.

Convincing milkers to slow down and get good coverage is one of the biggest challenges I face. Many people feel that since they are dipping, they must be doing a good job. The secret is not to splash the dip on but to squeeze the dip on to get excellent coverage. The dipper should be pushed all the way to the floor of the cow’s udder, and then give it a squeeze. Keeping teat dip in the barrel does little to improve udder health. Using the white paper towel to check teat coverage is a great tool to show teat coverage with the post dip.

An excellent way to monitor a good milking routine on a dairy is to look at the milk filters after milking. If the filters are dirty, it is clear teats are not being properly cleaned. If the filters are full of gargot, it is clear clinical milk is being missed. If there is lots of bedding on the filter, there may be too many fall-offs, or teats are not being properly cleaned.

Once the milking routine has been properly evaluated and a new routine has been developed, the new routine should be typed up and a copy given to every employee. Another great practice is to post the milking routine in the parlor or milk house so people are reminded of what is expected from them. I have found the most success in implementing a new milking routine when everyone who milks cows is given a chance to discuss the changes and give their input. Keeping everyone involved is the secret to milk quality success.

A common mistake made on many large dairies is not properly training new employees. Many times, they are shown where the parlor is and told to go milk the cows. Since milking cows is one of the most important operations on the dairy, it is critical to do it right. Every new milker should be trained for two to three days before they are allowed to milk alone. Proper training of new employees can made a huge difference on both milking performance and milk quality. One employee doing things differently can defeat the work of all the other milkers.

Remember, cows are creatures of habit and want to be treated as consistently as possible. Milker schools are something veterinarians and other milk quality specialists can offer that generate dollars and very positive results on dairies. All dairies, regardless of size, need milker schools. Consistency is the key to the dairy’s success.

Cows that enter the parlor clean will yield better milk quality and make milking routines easier to follow. Keeping the stall beds clean and dry is the place to start. Making sure cows do not have to walk through manure piles to and from the parlor is critical to udder health. Keeping the hair off the udders of animals, either by clipping or flaming, makes a major difference. I like to see all animals’ udders flamed before calving and then quarterly while in the milking herd.

Tail docking also benefits cow cleanliness, especially in freestall barns. I would like to see all animals freshen without a tail. When heifers calve with a tail, they are always dirtier than we would like to see. A great management tool is to dock the tails on heifers when diagnosed pregnant. This way, the farmer can quickly tell who is and who is not pregnant in the heifer group and the heifers calve cleaner.

A good milking routine is the key factor in the production of quality milk. If the right routine is implemented on any dairy operation, the farm should milk cows faster, get more milk, have better milk quality and be more profitable. PD

—Excerpts from 2003 Kentucky Dairy Conference Proceedings