Cora Hoehne cleans stalls in the Ruthers’ freestall barn Feb. 7 at their dairy near Perham, Minnesota. 
Cora Hoehne cleans stalls in the Ruthers’ freestall barn Feb. 7 at their dairy near Perham, Minnesota. PHOTO BY JENNIFER COYNE

    PERHAM, Minn. – Rob and Amie Ruther do not take their job as dairy farmers lightly and with that is the responsibility to provide high quality milk.
    “It’s my job, as a dairy farmer, to produce milk that you and I can drink,” Rob said. “To me, it’s important that I’m making and selling the best quality milk. That goes with anything in life. I want to do my best job.”

    Rob and Amie milk 108 cows with their seven children – Eathan, 16, Jonah, 15, Clara, 13, Everett, 10, Mara, 6, Aleece, 4, and Sadie, 1 – in Otter Tail County near Perham. The couple’s niece, Cora Hoehne, also works full time on the farm.
    Minnesota Dairy Herd Improvement Association recently recognized the family for their superior milk quality. In 2019, the Ruthers’ herd maintained an average somatic cell count of 83,000.
    “Honestly, we used to struggle a bit when we first purchased this farm,” Rob said. “But we made some changes because milk quality has been something we’ve always focused on.”
    The Ruthers’ morning begins in the barn at 6. Rob brings the cows into the double-8 milking parlor as Amie or Hoehne scrapes the stalls of the 108-stall freestall barn.
    In the parlor, the Ruthers follow a consistent milking routine. Four cows are dipped with a sanitizer and wiped, stripped, and dipped and wiped again before the milking units are attached. The same procedure is then followed on the other side of the parlor.
    Cows are carefully monitored so they are not over-milked.  
    Following milking, the cows are dipped with an iodine solution.
    “Consistency,” Amie said. “With our milking procedure, everything.”
    Rob agreed.
    “I think double dipping before we milk really helps too,” he said.
    During milking, the Ruthers pay close attention to their herd. If an animal shows signs of mastitis, they will bucket her milk and let the infection run its course.
    Previously, they sent in cultures and waited for results before deciding which antibiotic to use, but now when a cow becomes infected, the Ruthers typically do not intervene.
    “We understand antibiotics are tools,” Rob said. “We give cows a chance to recover before we run for the bottle. Honestly, we haven’t treated a cow in a long time.”
    Amie agreed.
    “I think we’ve created a better immune system for the cows and that’s why our SCC is low,” she said.
    Calves are fed milk from the bucketed animals.
    Outside of the milking parlor, the Ruthers focus on cleanliness. They use a bedding mixture of one-third sawdust to two-thirds wood shavings. Stalls are bedded once a week and scraped frequently throughout the day.
    Rob also diligently tracks stray voltage, which he attributes to fluctuations in SCC.
    “You can tell if stray voltage is affecting them,” Rob said. “It’s either one or two cows close by or the whole herd, and they dance. Testing for that can be as simple as finding a cord that was left plugged in.”
    Attention to detail and consistency have propelled the Ruthers’ milk quality, and it has paid off. The family receives a premium of 70 cents per hundredweight for a SCC under 100,000 from their cooperative, Lakes Area Cooperative in Perham.
    Rob estimated that the premium brings in an additional $1,500 each month.
    “There’s a nice sense of accomplishment to see our SCC where it’s at. The last two years have been really good,” Rob said. “We’ve just been able to control what we can control.”
    The Ruthers purchased their farm site in 2012.
    In a short time, the couple addressed three areas they felt were contributing to a high SCC: the housing facility for milking cows, stray voltage and chronic cows.
    Initially, the cows were housed in a bedded pack barn.
    “But, the barn was designed for stalls,” Rob said. “The bank also encouraged us to change that right away.”
     The Ruthers then focused on confronting stray voltage throughout the farm. And, as Rob and Amie had heifers calving in, they aggressively culled cows from their herd.
    “Between the free stalls and heifers calving in, we really saw a change in SCC,” Rob said.
    Amie agreed.
    “Although that helped us some, we still had cows freshening with a high SCC,” she said.
    So, the Ruthers reevaluated their management.
    They first reviewed their dry cow protocol. The couple was dry treating every cow with antibiotics and an intramammary teat sealant. They toyed with selective dry cow therapy but chose to implement a no-treatment protocol.
    “I read a lot about treatments and why treat a cow if the infection could run its course,” Amie said.
    They also shied away from bedding with straw. While the straw worked well, Rob was bedding twice a day. When a different bedding type became available for purchase, it created a drier environment for the cows and eliminated some labor.
    For a short stint, the Ruthers milked any fresh cows and bucketed animals in the farm’s old tiestall barn.  
    “I’d like to get back to that where everyone was all in one place and I didn’t have to sort out cows if they were treated or whatever,” said Rob, whose close-up cows are occupying the old facility.
    The last seven years have provided the Ruthers with opportunity to improve their work as dairy farmers and, in turn, be recognized for their milk quality. While the family is pleased with their progress, it is only a stepping-stone in their continual quest to do their job well.
    “It’s been a learning curve, but it never hurts to experiment and see what works,” Rob said. “I have to know I’m doing my best to give people quality milk.”