Tom Stangler Jr. shows the communication board used in the milking parlor. The board displays which cows are being quarter milked or bucket milked.
Tom Stangler Jr. shows the communication board used in the milking parlor. The board displays which cows are being quarter milked or bucket milked. PHOTO BY MARK KLAPHAKE
    SAUK CENTRE, Minn. – Producing quality milk is not something new for Bob Mueller and his two partners – Tom Stangler Jr. and Jeremey Smith. But this year was the first the farm received Organic Valley’s Cream of the CROPP Award for the lowest somatic cell count in the Midwest Region.
    The farm had previously received the co-op’s Gold Award the past three years for consistently producing milk with a somatic cell count lower than 100,000 cells/mL.
    “It was surprising,” Mueller said. “There are some good farmers in this region with some good counts.”
    Stangler, too, was surprised but knew it was within their reach.
    “It’s always been our goal to stay under 100,000 SCC,” Stangler said.
    Mueller, who has been dairying since 1979, was certified organic in 2002 and has been part of the Organic Valley cooperative since. The dairy milks a herd of 110 cows; one-third of which are Swedish Red and Montbeliarde crosses. The rest of the herd is Holsteins.
    One person milks the herd twice a day in a swing-10 New Zealand-style parlor. The milking units are automatic take-offs.
    Mueller credits several management practices including sand bedding in the freestall barn, cleanliness, consistent milking procedures and milk out that have all contributed to gradually lowering his herd’s somatic cell count through the years.
    When the herd was in the stanchion barn, Mueller noticed a drop in the herd’s SCC after switching to paper bedding from straw. Mueller credited the better absorbency of paper. Since 1996, the cows have been housed in the freestall barn with sand bedding. Mueller noticed a 10 percent drop in SCC after the switch.
    Monitoring each cow is also important.
    “Three years ago, we started [CMT] paddling the cows,” Mueller said. “That helps because sometimes a cow that looks cleared up, may not be. Her counts still may be high and the paddle catches that.”
    If a cow is running a high cell count or has a case of mastitis, it is tested with a CMT paddle to find which quarters are infected. The cow will be milked accordingly with a quarter milker or bucket until her CMT test runs clear. The withheld milk is fed to the calves. Then the quarter is rubbed with a liniment. Thorough milk out is key in clearing up a case of mastitis. Fresh cows also get CMT tested before going into the bulk tank.
    “We’ll do the liniment rub for about a week and if it doesn’t clear up, we keep milking with a quarter milker and paddle testing her until it clears up,” Stangler said. “In really bad cases, I will give a shot of vitamin C under the skin.”
    Mueller has not tried herbal treatments yet for treating mastitis, but said he is willing to try them.
    “I have talked to other farmers that have used them and said they work really well,” Mueller said. “I haven’t had time to try it and what we are currently doing has been working really well.”
    Communication is key among the people milking the cows to keep milking procedures consistent. A white board helps keep everyone informed on changes in cows. The cows’ legs are banded accordingly – a yellow band for a front quarter milker, orange for rear quarter milker and a red band for a bucket milker.
    Milking consistency has been important in keeping the SCC down. The automatic take-offs help with milk out and consistent milking. The milk prep procedure varies slightly among the people milking. The only difference is Stangler adds an extra step of dry wiping each cow before coming back to pre-strip and pre-dip where Smith and Mueller usually start their milk prep. The cows are pre-dipped and post dipped with the same iodine solution.
    Mueller’s herd is SCC tested on every milk pick up. The SCC averaged 77,000 for 2017. The count is something Mueller, Stangler and Smith are all very proud of. It is something Mueller said he has always worked on as the SCC count has gradually gone down the last 20 years.
    “It’s really about having healthier cows,” Mueller said. “The SCC is indicative of how the cows are doing. Milking takes a little more time, but it’s worth taking a few extra minutes.”
    Mueller received a somatic cell premium between $1.25 and $1.45 per hundredweight throughout 2017.
    “It adds up pretty quick,” Mueller said. “Premiums can make a big difference.”
    Mueller also pushes for components. The herd averages a 4.2 butterfat and 3.2 protein in the winter months.
    “Nutrition plays a key role in keeping the cows healthy and somatic cell counts low,” Mueller said. “We have fed kelp if there is an increase in problems with mastitis.”
    From April until October, the cows are grazed on 100 acres, some of which will be harvested for dry hay or in a different crop before being pastured later in the season. During the summer, the cows’ TMR ration of corn silage, haylage, snaplage, dry hay and grain is cut in half.
    “Hay is good for butterfat and keeps the rumens going,” Mueller said.
    Cows are on pasture most of the day during grazing season. Every day the cows are turned onto a new pasture. The cows are managed by two groups – a high and low. There are nine pastures where the wire can be moved every day with the goal of being done with one pasture in five days before moving on to the next one. The low group will run clean up once the high group goes through. Then, the high group will move on to starting on a new pasture.
    “I love seeing the cows on pasture,” Mueller said. “It makes a lot more sense to bring the cows to the feed than bring the feed to the cows. It’s a lot more efficient.”
    After so many years of working to keep the SCC low, Mueller said it is all been a part of his management plan for the dairy. Receiving the milk quality award was nice recognition for the years of extra, detailed work.
    “We’ve worked really long and hard at it,” Mueller said. “It’s not an overnight thing to change a SCC. It takes a bit of time to whittle it down. It’s a slow process.”