Irish dairy farmers could pocket an extra €77m a year by reducing their herds' cell counts by 100,000, according to Cellcheck programme manager Finola McCoy.
The dairy specialist points to Teagasc research that indicates that reducing somatic cell counts (SCCs) by 100,000 from 250,000 to 150,000 results in a 1.5c/l lift in milk price.
While co-ops have been reluctant to reveal what their actual SCC averages are, industry experts believe that the national average is close to 250,000.
This places us well ahead of many milk producing countries, but it leaves us trailing key competitors such as New Zealand and Scandinavia.
"Comparing country averages comes with all kinds of health warnings, since the numbers can be tweaked one way or another depending on whether geometric, weighted or simple arithmetic means are used," cautioned McCoy.
"But the Scandinavians are world leaders with an SCC of close to 150,000. This is what the Kiwis have stated as their target, and already they are ahead of us with an average of about 200,000."
While she admits that the 150,000 target set by the New Zealanders is ambitious, she believes that it is do-able for any dairy sector that is focused enough on achieving it.
"There's no miracle cure or quick fix. Instead it is all about getting the right routine in place in relation to the milking regime, parlour maintenance and cow care," says McCoy.
Privately, milk processors have been expressing concerns that the focus on expansion has distracted farmers from the task of producing the highest quality milk possible. A slide in quality was already underway in the six to eight year period in the run-up to the establishment of the Cellcheck programme by Animal Health Ireland in 2010. Co-op bosses know only too well that the recovery of protein and fat is lower in high SCC milk, reducing the overall profitability of the milk even further.
"Up to 2010 there was a gradual deterioration to the point where just 26pc of milk recording farms had a herd average of less than 200,000," says McCoy.
However, since then, the number of farmers hitting this high quality bracket has doubled to 53pc.
Much of the credit for this has to go to the Animal Health Ireland initiative that the State and dairy processors have funded to the tune of close to €250,000 per year.
However, because processors are focused on targeting premium users such as baby-food manufacturers, there is still a big push to get more farmers to address this issue.
As to what should be the ultimate target for any dairy farmer, McCoy believes that under 200,000 should be the initial target for every farmer.
"There's no black or white about what is the perfect SCC to have your herd at, but what is clear is that if any cow's reading is over 200,000, the chances are that she got a mastitis infection in at least one quarter.
"Getting it under that level doesn't guarantee that there is no infection, but it dramatically lowers the risk," she says.
And by lowering the level of mastitis infection in the herd, output from farms increases because there is less lost quarters and milk discards due to antibiotic with-holding periods.
"There is a real risk that farmers are chasing milk quantity at the expense of quality as milk quotas go, but the irony is that by focusing on milk quality, you will actually also increase output," she explains.
For farmers with an SCC of 350,000 or over, Ms McCoy says that farmers stand to net an extra 2c/l by reducing their average to 150,000. That's worth an extra €7,000 annually for a farmer with a 350,000l herd.
"That's not even including any extra bonuses for low SCC milk - it's all down to the extra production that will flow into the tank," she claims.
1 Find out where you stand - what's your SCC at the moment? Find out what it is and calculate what you will save if you get your SCC down to 150,000 using the Cellcheck calculator on www.animalhealthireland.ie.
2 Buy a California Mastitis Test (CMT) kit. It costs about €22, and will allow you to test milk from up to 100 cows to see if they are suffering from sub-clinical mastitis (infection tha t is invisible to the naked eye). "I would recommend farmers to test every cow before her milk goes into the bulk tank, since it's a cheap, fast way of establishing problem cows," says Cellcheck manager Finola McCoy.
3 Change your liners every 2,000 milkings. "Some farmers are getting caught out on this because their herd sizes are increasing, but their parlours have stayed the same size," comments McCoy. "Rubber that constantly moves gradually loses its flexibility, which means that you are not getting a full milk out. Worn liners will also slip more, leading to air intake and more potential infection. But in addition, the surface area on worn liners becomes pitted, which provides cover for bacteria. You won't be able to see this with the naked eye," stresses McCoy.
4 Clip tails and udders at least once a year, but preferably two to three times. "Hair harbours dirt, so get it clipped as often as required," says McCoy.
5 Make sure the teat-spray covers all of the teat area that was in contact with the cup. "The cups have been in contact with other cows, so that area is a potential vector for infection," she says.
6 Wear gloves. "When we started this programme nearly five years ago, I'd say about a third of farmers wore gloves. Thanks to a consistent message, that figure is now closer to 70-80pc," says McCoy.
The reason is that hands are also a source of infection, and gloves are easier cleaned than all the cracks and crevices in a farmer's hands. Your hands -and other half- will appreciate it too!
7 Pay attention to the detail of your routine and measures. "The recommendations haven't really changed over the years, but you need to keep on top of what you are supposed to be doing, and make sure that you are actually being effective in what you do," says McCoy. In relation to self-assessing the effectiveness of routines, McCoy highlighted teat-dipping. How much of the teat is being covered? Are you using the 15ml target amount of dip per teat?
8 Start milk recording. "Don't think of milk recording as a luxury that you can't afford this year - you can't afford not to!" says McCoy. "It is the best tool you have to establish which cows are paying their way, and enables you to react quickly to cows with elevated SCCs before they spread infection throughout your herd and raise your bulk tank SCC.
9 Don't assume that first lactation animals are mastitis-free when they join the milking herd. Research shows that 23pc of first lactation animals recorded within the first month of calving had a somatic cell count (SCC) over 200,000, while 13pc had an SCC over 400,000.
First calvers with a SCC over 400,000 will produce 839l less over their lifetime. New Zealand research has shown that teat spraying in-calf heifers three times a week, for at least three weeks before calving, significantly reduced the incidence of mastitis.
10 Attend a Cellcheck workshop. These 2.5 hour sessions cost about €30, and combine the theory with practical demonstrations of all that's involved in using the California Mastitis Test, dipping, using milk recordings, cow care, etc. The groups are limited to about 15 farmers, facilitated by local advisors, a local co-op advisor, a milking machine technician and a local vet.
The California Mastitis Test (CMT) works by causing the somatic cells in the milk to coagulate - the higher the SCC, the more jelly-like the result. The kits are available from most co-ops and vets. Practice on cows that you already know have a high SCC.
After discarding the first 3-4 squirts of foremilk, collect 2-3 squirts of milk from each quarter in each separate well. Holding the paddle almost vertical, allow excess milk to pour out just until the line becomes visible. This is the correct amount of milk to have in the well.
Add an equal amount of reagent to each well. Swirling the paddle gently, mix for 10 seconds.
Look at the consistency of the fluid in each well (not the colour), and record the amount of gel reaction that occurs within 20 seconds (from none to almost solidified).