Milk quality matters beyond quality premiums. It can help secure your milk market and bring more money back to your dairy by reducing mastitis treatment costs and labor, along with milk withholding times. A healthier udder can also produce more milk.
Engel keith
Dairy Farm and Hygiene and Supplies Specialist / GEA

The first step in achieving milk quality success is to know how your dairy is performing. Review your milk quality goals. Ask yourself: How are you doing at achieving them? Is what you are doing consistent? Do you need to adapt your goals based on your herd’s performance?

If you don’t have goals, work with your milk quality team – including the milk quality specialist at your local dairy equipment dealer – to document them and share with your team.

When you establish your milk quality goals, make sure they are measurable and know the value goal achievement can bring back to your dairy. For example, if your goal is to achieve a clinical mastitis rate less than 1 percent, know the value that decrease brings to your dairy in terms of treatment savings and optimal milk production.

Using benchmarks when you set your goals can help measure and track progress.


Milk quality KPIs

As you review or develop your milk quality goals, keep these industry key performance indicators (KPIs) in mind:

  • Bulk tank SCC: Develop a goal that makes sense for you and your dairy, knowing the financial payback. A good goal to start with for bulk tank SCC is under 200,000 cells per milliliter. Most herds today are trying for less than 150,000.

  • Individual cow SCC: Track the percent of your herd under 200,000 cells per milliliter. Cows greater than 200,000 are considered subclinically infected.

  • Percent clinical mastitis hospital cows: Less than 2 percent is a good goal; less than 1 percent is elite. Remember, every cow you can prevent from having a clinical case is saving you about $250.

  • Milking facility procedures: Define the milking routine procedures to achieve consistency in:

o Stimulation and cleaning of cows

o Optimal prep lag times for proper stimulation and milk letdown (goal: 90 to 120 seconds)

o Unit alignment for proper milk harvest

o Parlor cleaning protocols for hygienic milking

o Barn procedures for efficient cow flow to and from the milking facility

o Clean stall beds and alleys

Once goals are reviewed or set, look at the key areas on your dairy that impact milk quality. Spring weather is unpredictable and throws a lot of inconsistencies our way. Which of these areas can you control to get consistency? How can you adapt your protocols and practices to maintain consistency?

Key areas to evaluate


Consider all housing areas including freestalls, bedded packs, calving pens, dry cows, heifer pens and pre-fresh pens. How clean and dry is the environment? Bedding dryness can vary greatly with changing weather. What are air quality and ventilation like? How clean are cows?

Your cows will tell you how comfortable they are in their housing. Keep in mind, at least 12 to 14 hours per day of lying time is ideal.


Are you culturing bedding? If so, when was it last cultured? A good rule of thumb is to culture bedding once a season to ensure protocols are working. Protocols should ensure consistent bedding quality and dryness. Pull culture samples before adding fresh bedding to stalls for an accurate reading of how high the bacteria levels can get.

Work with your local milking equipment dealer and their milk quality specialist to collect samples and locate a lab. Processing can take two to 10 business days depending on the lab. To pull samples for bedding cultures:

  • Choose a pen that represents the herd or groups with higher rates of mastitis

  • Wear a new set of nitrile gloves

  • Collect several handfuls of bedding material from a few stalls where the udder lies

  • Avoid obvious soiled bedding/manure

  • Place them in a new Ziploc bag, label and freeze

  • Ship frozen sample in Styrofoam shipping container with ice packs

After you receive the culture results, review levels for mastitis-causing bacteria, organic matter and percent dry matter. If you use sand, be sure to test percent organic matter to represent how much of your sand is sand.

Controlling bacteria in bedding is critical for the prevention of environmental mastitis. Keep bedding materials as dry as possible. Remember, the more time there is between adding fresh bedding, the higher the bacteria level. Well-maintained bedding can reduce bacteria exposure, prevent udder infections and reduce SCC.

Milking procedures and equipment

How clean are cow teats? How much bedding is stuck to the teats before udder prep? Are you using a pre-dip that kills your herd’s mastitis-causing organisms? Are the parlor and milking equipment clean? Have you cultured the udder towels? Are liner slips greater than 5 percent?

During milking, have a protocol in place to keep milking units clean. Dirty liner heads can put cows at risk of more mastitis. Here are some quick tips to keep milking units clean:

  • Have sanitizer in parlor hoses to clean between each group

  • Focus on cleaning liner heads and keep the milking unit vent hole open

  • Dry liner heads with a towel and avoid twisting the liner inside the shell

  • Keep units clean with a towel during group milking and use a sanitizer hose when necessary

Once you’ve completed a thorough review of these areas, adjust your protocols and routines to help improve your milk quality. Meet with your team to share the new goals and KPIs and determine how you all can work together to achieve them.

Team communication

Communicating what’s going well and what could use some fine-tuning is essential for a team to work together to produce quality milk. Your team must be willing to make changes. Everyone involved should know their role and be willing to take ownership as you implement changes.

Set expectations by having a specific schedule of when tasks should take place – start of milking shift, start of each pen, wash time, etc. Schedules not only make everyone aware of the expectations, but they help keep the dairy running efficiently.

If you’re not already meeting with your employees regularly, consider having regular staff meetings. Meetings give your team the opportunity to communicate and have their voices heard. It also gives you the opportunity to review goals and KPIs and evaluate performance.

Remember, you’re in the driver’s seat of milk quality. Taking control of milk quality on your dairy and having a plan to consistently manage it can result in more profitability. Work with your dealer’s milk quality and hygiene specialist to determine which milk quality evaluations can help bring more consistency to your dairy.  end mark

PHOTO: A good rule of thumb is to culture bedding once a season to ensure protocols are working. Courtesy photo.

Keith Engel