Existing technology should allow dairymen to improve milk quality
By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
The National Milk Producers Federation passed a resolution to lower the somatic cell count limit in milk to 400,000 cells per milliliter from the current national standard of 750,000 by 2014.
Somatic cells are white blood cells, which increase in response to bacteria, including those that cause mastitis. Higher levels can cause a rancid taste in milk and decrease shelf life and cheese yields.
The proposal, passed at the federation's Oct. 26 annual meeting, would use a step-down approach, reducing the limit incrementally over three years.
"It's important to come up with an approach that moves us in the direction of improving the quality of the milk supply," said Chris Galen, senior vice president of communications.
The somatic cell count in milk is not a public health issue or a food-safety concern, Galen said.
"Pressure is building around the world and in the U.S. to improve milk quality," he said. "We need to be proactive on this and take reasonable steps."
Phasing in the new standard will give producers time to change their management practices, he said. That includes culling problem cows, improving sanitary conditions, consistently using teat dips, milking higher count cows last or keeping their milk separate, controlling flies, and boosting resistance with vitamin E and selenium.
While the European Union has adopted new requirements for a 400,000 limit and on-farm certification, how that applies to U.S. exports is still unknown. The federation's proposal is not in direct response to the EU's actions, Galen said.
Idaho dairymen voted last year to reduce the level to 500,000. Castleford dairyman Andrew Jarvis said Idaho's producers will have no problem reducing levels another 100,000 and he thinks it's good move.
"It portrays a better image with a product we're producing and everyone is using," he said.
Jon Davis, CEO of Jerome Cheese's parent company, Davisco Foods, said the current somatic cell count only minimally affects cheese yields, but lower levels are nonetheless important to processors.
"We know he's (the producer) doing it right. It improves pregnancy rates and milk production, and we know he's going to be around," he said.
This spring, Oregon dairymen voted to follow Idaho's lead, setting the standard at 500,000, said Jim Krahn, executive director of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association.
"I don't think there'll be any objection to lowering it to 400,000," he said. "With today's technology and the climate up here, anyone should be able to reach that number."
At 600,000, California's standard is already lower than the nation's, and a survey of Western United Dairymen's membership this summer found the majority of respondents supported changing the allowable count to 400,000.
Lowering the count nationally could have a short-term impact on milk supply, but producers would adjust, said Western CEO Michael Marsh.
And while it could stimulate milk supply through culling problem cows and replacing them with higher producers, milk supply is more a matter of markets, he said.
NMPF intends to present the proposal at the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments next spring. The conference recommends standards for FDA's Pasteurized Milk Ordinance for Grade A milk.
Somatic cell count time line
600,000 per mL -- Jan. 1, 2012
500,000 per mL -- Jan. 1, 2013
400,000 per mL -- Jan. 1, 2014