Milk quality not just about somatic cell counts

Carole Curtis

ITHACA, NY - Quality standards for milk are increasingly being established by retailers who take their que from consumers.

Dr. Frank Welcome of Cornell University College of Agriculture's Quality Milk Production Services says top dairy farmers bolster milk quality by paying close attention to details.

Consumers aren't looking at regulatory standards. They want evidence of measures and consistency of quality that often greatly exceed regulatory standards, Dr. Frank Welcome, Cornell University College of Agriculture's Quality Milk Production Services, said during a Cornell ProDairy webinar.

Measures of Quality Milk

The most familiar regulatory standard is the bulk tank somatic cell count (BTSCC) , set by the pasteurized milk ordinance at  750,000 cells/ml.  Bacterial counts, often referred to as the standard plate count or PLC, are set at 100,000 cfu.

However, in 2012, the European Union imposed their standards on any dairy products shipped to the EU, Welcome explained, leading to many U.S. milk processors adopting those standards which set BTSCC standards at 400,000 cells/ml.

While the SPC/PLC remains at 100,000 cfu, Welcome said, most processors consider a bacteria count of 10,000 cfu or less as "excellent".


Consumers' concerns have greatly expanded and now include issues of animal well-being and environmental stewardship. "Today's consumer is looking for dairy products that are very high quality, which refers to a long shelf life, and taste good," Welcome observed.

Frank Welcome

Consumers want dairy items that are safe for consumption, and they're concerned about the use of antibiotics in dairy cattle. They, most certainly, want a product that is wholesome in nutrition because most fluid milk is consumed by children, he noted.

"In addition, over the past five years, issues like animal care and welfare and environmental stewardship have become very important issues to consumers," Welcome said. "That's reflected in the demands that retailers are making of producers and processors for the milk that they buy."

This includes antimicrobial use on dairy farms, which is not necessarily related to residue issues. "It's  a definite concern with the overall use of drugs, particularly antibiotics, on the farm," Welcome explained.

Quality counts

For producers, producing quality milk gives them pride in their product, added value and income, allays animal health and welfare concerns, and deals with regulatory issues. For the dairy industry, it fosters pride in the product and meets consumer and market demands.

In the current dairy surplus environment, however, processors demand quality milk, but most won't pay for it anymore. "We are seeing quality incentives disappear or, certainly, being decreased," Welcome said.

Still, it is always in a dairyman's best interest to have the healthiest herd he can, because healthy cows produce more and better milk. "We're going to see farmers continue to produce high-quality milk, regardless of the presence or absence of premiums, which is, of course, what processors are counting on," he said.

It's important to note that producers who don't meet the milk quality standards will be looking for a new home for their milk.

 "We've had phone calls here at our Quality Milk Production Services program from some of the larger farms that are not able to meet standards being set by some of their retailers," he said.

He has gotten calls from several very large producers on the brink of losing their markets because their cell counts or bacteria counts are not meeting the standards demanded by their processors.

Road map to quality

To illustrate what can be done, Welcome cited Tollgate Holsteins of Ancramdale, NY. The farm, owned by Jim and Karen Davenport, is a six-time NDQA program Platinum winner and has earned top milk quality honors with Agri-Mark Cooperative since 1988. In 2017, it attributed "meticulous milking hygiene" for averaging  41,900 BTSCC and 1,000 cfu SPC.

Welcome said top dairy farmers, like the Davenports, bolster milk quality by paying close attention to details. They establish goals that focus on udder health and monitor key performance indicators. Their plan is to keep accurate records of treatment and performance, and use the appropriate tools and technologies.

In his view, the most important issue is their focus on training. "Anyone involved in milk quality on the farm knows and understands the plan. They recognize when certain issues are out of order," he said.

On the farm

Dairy facilities and cow hygiene need to ensure every animal is clean, dry and comfortable. A useful tool is the Udder Hygiene Scoring Charts, available at

"Cow hygiene is something we assess every time we visit a farm and this is the form we use," Welcome noted.

When milking, focus on a consistent routine and proper procedures. Wear gloves, use towels once, and insist on clean, dry, well-stimulated teats. "Lastly, we want all milkers on the farm to be well-trained with a positive attitude," Welcome said.

Milking equipment needs to be evaluated, preferably by National Mastitis Council methods, and kept up to snuff with routine and milking time maintenance.

To address consumer concerns, farmers might consider selective dry cow therapy, internal teat sealants and pathogen-based therapy for mastitis cases. "Actually, we and other universities have shown that we grossly overuse antibiotics for clinical mastitis treatment, with from 40-60 percent of cases not appropriately treated," Welcome said.