Keeping cows clean translates to higher milk quality, dairy farmer says

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Jim Davenport milks one of his cows at Tollgate Farm. He said it's important to have the cows surrounded by clean bedding and practice teat hygiene before and after milking.

If you've ever needed a reason to spend more time and money on hygiene and cleanliness in the cow barn, here's one – dairy farmer Jim Davenport says it leads to higher quality milk.

Davenport, a New York dairy farmer who sits on the board of the National Mastitis Council, presented a webinar called "Clean Cows Make Clean Milk" with Hoard's Dairyman magazine Monday, March 8. Producing milk since 1986, Davenport said cow cleanliness is of the utmost importance at his operation, Tollgate Farm.

Davenport's operation, Tollgate Holsteins, has won the National Mastitis Council's Dairy Quality Award more times than any other dairy in the nation. The Davenport's milk 64 Holsteins and Aryshires in a tie stall barn and sells milk for Class I and Class II products (fluid milk, and yogurt, sour cream and ice cream).

According to 2020 Agri-Mark Cooperative Data based on 1,724,908 lbs. of milk shipping, Tollgate Holsteins achieved: Raw Count - 1,417; Lab Pasteurized Count - 19; and a somatic cell count of 33,583.

Davenport said there's five key points of consideration when it comes to cow cleanliness: the surrounding environment, udder health, teat hygiene, teat dipping and the misconceptions surrounding cow cleanliness.

"A clean, dry environment is bacteria's enemy," Davenport said. "I don't know what everybody else spends on bedding – we spend way too much money – but it does get us results. And it's pretty obvious 52 cents a day for the two ingredients in the bedding (is) not cheap, but at least we're getting something for it in milk quality."

What's most important to keep clean is the teat, Davenport explained. A great way to help maintain a clean teat is to surround the cows with high-quality bedding, and making sure you clean out old, soiled bedding frequently. Doing this during milking is your best bet, because it allows the cow to lay down on fresh, dry bedding right after milking.

Dipping the teat is also a good way to keep it clean, Davenport said. He dips his cows' teats in an iodine solution before and after milking, which he says is gentle on the skin. He stressed the importance of keeping the iodine solution free of contamination to avoid spreading any illness among the herd – an easy feat when using the same dipper with many cows.

"Our goal is to attach the milking unit to perfectly clean teats," Davenport said. "If the teats are clean and dry, chances are your milking gloves, which have probably been splashed with dip during the milking process, have very little chance of spreading pathogens."

Jim Davenport

Davenport's method of dipping includes forestripping, pre-dipping the teat and then wiping dry with a paper towel, attaching the milking machine, then dipping again after the machine vacuum is released. He makes sure to dip the entire teat (up to the udder attachment) to ensure a full cleaning. He also recommended removing the splash ring from the dipper and flicking it to help expel any contaminants.

Keeping the dipping equipment clean is also important. Davenport recommends washing and rinsing with hot, soapy water. Any leftover dip should not be returned back to the supply barrel or used for the next milking, but tossed due to possible contamination. Make sure to keep the barrels clean, capped and at room temperature, he added.

Not only is cleanliness important, but Davenport said a good diet will also help the cows feel their best, upping milk quality. The cows at Tollgate have a 70% homegrown forage diet, with the base total mix ration balanced for 80 pounds milk and 4% fat. For dry matter intake, 80% of the TMR is homegrown grasses and corn silage, which Davenport said is the "beginning and end of milk quality." The farm's February rolling herd average was at 24,549 pounds of milk.

Davenport told a story about a dairy farmer neighbor of his who learned how to keep teat dipping clean the hard way. He said the neighbor allowed the cows to go straight back to the free stall barn after milking and he reused the same dip multiple times. Eventually, the dip got contaminated and the somatic cell count of his entire herd reached over 5 million, forcing him to dump milk for two weeks before it was allowed to be sold to his cooperative again.

"This was quite a wake up call for me, as we had started shipping milk a month before, and I learned an awful lot about taking care of my teat dip," Davenport said.

Cows that are clean and comfortable also get sick less severely, he said. 

"I personally feel that as long as the cow is clean, unstressed and everything's clicking in her diet and her life, that she can fight off an infection pretty handily, no matter how low her (somatic cell) count is."