During the Fifth Annual Southeast Quality Milk Initiative Meeting held in Nashville, Tennessee, in November 2017, three representatives from two milk cooperatives sat down in an open panel to discuss current trends of the U.S. milk market.

Dairy Extension Specialist / University of Illinois

Panelists were Bob Shipley and Fabian Bernal representing Dairy Farmers of America as well as Jim Howie representing Maryland and Virginia Milk Cooperative. Between the two co-ops, the panel serves over 14,000 dairy producers and handles nearly 30 percent of the milk in the U.S.. Discussion ranged from why markets change to school milk programs, but one topic led the conversation: milk quality.

It may be hard to believe, but just shy of 30 years ago, the legal somatic cell count (SCC) limit in the U.S. was 1 million cells per mL. Throughout the past 30 years, we have seen the legal limit drop from 1 million cells per mL to 750,000 cells per mL, and when most of the industry thought the legal limit would drop again to 400,000 cells per mL in 2014, shockingly it did not. However, the SCC demanded by the industry has continued to drop to the point that the legal limit is now irrelevant.

As the panel discussed, there are two primary drivers in the milk market, and those are quantity and quality. In 2015, 99 percent of milk shipments met the legal limit of 750,000 cells per mL, and 96 percent of milk produced was under 400,000 cells per mL, according to USDA APHIS. Therefore, milk produced in the U.S. is of high quality, so quantity of milk on the market is what is driving processors and cooperatives to demand lower SCC limits. The abundance of milk on the market today allows processors to accept the highest quality milk available, and those dairies with high SCC may be left without a market. Panelists suggested that farmers should be striving for SCC goals of 200,000 to 250,000 cells per mL, and that they want to see all succeed in reaching these goals.

Cooperatives are now training field representatives as milk quality consultants rather than milk marketers to aid producers in making higher quality milk. Field reps are now consulting on not only bacteria count and equipment issues, but also cow issues and elevated SCC. Because of the emphasis on quality in today’s market, processors are focused on quality from the cow to the refrigerator, and they stress that quality starts with the bulk tank sample that is taken. Both cooperatives represented on the panel monitor milk haulers and labs for sample accuracy. Explaining the importance of proper sample collection and providing incentives for accuracy has led to less variation in sample results and more consistency by milk haulers.


The idea of milk hauling and shipment was also briefly discussed. Milk shipment can be very confusing to even those that understand it best. It seems strange that milk from the Midwest may end up in the Northeast or Southeast to be processed or bottled. Panelists explained that milk is not shipped from region to region of the U.S. to account for lack of milk quality in certain areas, but rather quantities. Milk may be shipped from the Northeast to the Southeast to allow for more fluid milk sales, or milk might be shipped from the Southeast to the Northeast to meet grass-fed milk demands. As more diverse markets – such as organic and grass-fed – arise, milk shipments around the country increase to make up for lack of supply in specific areas.

Today’s consumer may be looking for multiple fluid milk options and consume milk products in a variety of different ways, but milk quality is an underlying factor that the whole dairy industry is behind. The SCC legal limit of 750,000 cells per mL has gone by the wayside as processors are demanding lower and lower SCC thresholds, but to accomplish this, they are providing the support and technical services to help their dairy producers reach their milk quality goals.  end mark

Derek Nolan is a graduate research assistant at the University of Kentucky. Email Derek Nolan.