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Lowering somatic cell counts

Like the Hollywood blobs of movies past, somatic cells roll across the screen and envelope bacteria before killing them.

For dairy producers, like those in the audience at the recent Manitoba Dairy Conference, somatic cells are often seen as the villains – after all, a high somatic cell count is the primary indicator of mastitis. But at the front of the workshop, Cornell University Professor Ynte Schukken is urging them not to judge somatic cells too harshly.

“Ultimately we want these cells,” said Schukken. “It’s about dealing with them and managing them in the right way.”

The professor helped to develop an American program called “400 K beat it!” used to lower somatic cell counts. The same strategy can be put to use on any farm, he said.

“The first thing is don’t blame the cells,” said Schukken, adding that the true goal is lowering infections and having healthier animals.

In fact, a somatic count below 20,000 is too low, and actually puts cows at a greater risk of mastitis. A normal cell count is around 50,000 for an animal that has never suffered an infection, said Schukken. Heifers usually have lower counts than older cows, which may be healthy with a somatic cell count as high as 200,000.

The first step to lowering somatic cell counts to an optimal range is having a risk assessment performed, which means looking at biosecurity, milking procedures and equipment, treatment protocols, hygiene and nutrition, said Schukken, who is director of Cornell’s Quality Milk Production Services.

Somatic cell count tests should also be taken from the bulk tank and individual animals, so that realistic goals can be developed and chronic mastitis infection cases treated properly.

“There is a one-to-one relation between cell counts and milk production loss,” said Schukken, adding the cost of an assessment is outweighed by improved milk production as a result of healthier cows.

Milking procedures and udder health is key to preventing infection and high somatic cell counts, he said. Even equipment that appears to be operating correctly may be generating poor suction or causing other stresses on the teat, and needs regular testing, he said. Full vacuum applied without milk flow can also lead to stress, damage and mastitis.

Special care of teat ends needs to be taken when preparing teats for milking by wiping or dipping, he said.

“We tend to wipe the teat, and wipe the barrel of the teat, and clean it off, but only the part you can see very well,” said Schukken.

“So you wipe it off and think it looks very nice, there is no iodine left on the teat, it’s clean of the dirt and all fine and wonderful. But if you flip the teat over, you notice you haven’t spent a lot of effort actually cleaning the teat end, and only when you actively do this by flipping the teat over, or by scraping the teat with a towel do you see how much dirt is left.”

Farmers should also look to collaborative advice when seeking to improve udder health and lower cell counts, working with veterinarians, milk quality advisers or staff from government and dairy organizations, he added.

New cases of cows with high somatic cell counts can usually be linked to one of two issues: milking procedures or stall maintenance, he said.

Schukken noted Canada is moving towards new milk standards, including lowering somatic cell counts to 400,000 per millilitre, from the current 500,000. He said all farmers will want to evaluate procedures and assess risks in order to lower cell counts. The global standard is currently 400,000, although the U.S. has a limit of 750,000, he said.

“Every farm has its own issues, there is not one standard solution,” he said.

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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