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Reteaching old dogs new tricks

From the Farm

January 21, 2011
By Kerry Hoffman

When it comes to being a dairy farmer, it takes a ton of expertise, especially when it comes to the operating all the equipment in the milking parlor. Sometimes I think we retain so much information, we forget some of the facts we have stored away in our minds.

If the equipment in the parlor is not properly milking the cows, and if the people milking the cows are not paying attention, things start to go awry and the quality, and quantity, of the milk starts to decline.

Paying close attention to our milk quality makes it easier to nip the problem in the bud before it becomes a huge problem. We track our milk quality by receiving daily quality reports, as a text message, from our creamery.

Article Photos

Kerry Hoffman

Just before Steve and I took the family to Hawaii, we noticed our milk quality was taking a vacation of its own. Of course we weren't going to sacrifice the trip to figure out the conundrum, it would just have to wait.

According to our somatic cell counts (a sign of infection in a cow's udder) there were quite a few cows with minor infections in their udders. Usually we have a bulk tank cell count (from all cows combined) of less than 200,000. We don't like to go above that that's my personal goal anyway. To keep it below that mark.

Our daily reports were reaching into the 250,000 area. One, I believe was over 300,000.

Whoa! That makes me nervous.

Now it was up to us to figure out what was causing the increase in numbers.

That takes a bit of time. The numbers always increase a heck of a lot quicker than they go down. We have to find the cow by either the look of her udder or by the observing the quality of her milk. Sometimes it takes a few days before the person milking can identify it.

When numbers go haywire, we try to identify the source. We start looking at the equipment in the milking parlor first.

Just as we were working our way through our verdicts, we attended a wonderful milk-quality presentation put together by Heidi Sellner of the Southwest Minnesota Dairy Profit Group. She brought in several speakers, and one of them was Tom Lorenzen, of Alltech. He talked specifically about milk-quality concerns, pointing out bad habits of other dairy farmers, which Steve and I were doing on our farm.

Mr. Lorenzen did reach into the dark recesses of our minds to pull out some long-ignored, previously remembered information. (Surprisingly, he didn't run away when he was in the dark abyss of my mind.)

It's kind of like teaching an old dog, old tricks; we just needed a refresher course.

That evening I was out in the parlor making changes.

In fact, on the way home from the presentation, I looked at Steve and I said, "I am going to make these changes in the parlor. This is my baby."

That very night, I was teaching two of our employees our revised milking procedure.

Our previous milking procedure wasn't enabling us to fully utilize the oxytocin in the cow's system. Oxytocin is a hormone that stimulates milk let down in cows. As soon as we touch her udder, she realizes it's time to get milked and the oxytocin starts flowing. To properly utilize the benefits of oxytocin, there is a limited amount of time to get the milking unit on the cow.

We were allowing way too much time to pass to get the full benefit of milk let down in each cow, and the milking units were staying on the cows too long. Think of it as pulling your socks off so they are completely inside out. That's what the milking units were trying to do to the cows' teats.

Those poor cows; it's a wonder their eyeballs didn't get sucked in and come out the teat ends. Ooh, ick.

We did change out a few of the milking hoses and parts on the milking units as well.

In the end, we noticed our somatic cell count numbers dropped immediately. We now average about 170,000. And that's only the beginning. I want to get it even lower yet.

If we hadn't attended that one seminar to relearn proper procedures, we may still be struggling with our milk quality.

For questions or comments, e-mail me at



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