Is consistency for cows always good?

Technology can provide consistency in milking cows, but unless it is a good practice being consistently applied, that consistency may be detrimental.

In my duties as a Michigan State University (MSU) Extension educator, I have taught dairy producers and employees the importance of consistency. After all, cows are creatures of habit and when it comes to milking, feeding and handling cows, consistency works best. Recently, I spoke to the owner of a company that sells Automatic Milking Systems (AMS), more commonly known as robotic milkers. He said that the main advantage of AMS units is consistency - compared to the potential variations in routine compliance by employees. That’s great.

But consistency is only good when it delivers good and proven practices. On a recent visit to a farm, I observed the employees using a new tool in the parlor that provided mechanical teat cleaning and stimulation with rotating brushes and sanitizer piped in. The machine was certainly consistent in prepping all cows. But was this practice, although consistently delivered, adequate for the cows?

The procedure being followed left the teats cleaner, however, cleanliness was less than desired at the teat ends. The teat ends are the gateway to the udder and the entry point for bacteria. In addition, the mechanical cleaner left the teats wet, and because there was no follow-up drying of teats, the unit was attached to wet teats. Moisture and filth creates opportunity for bacteria to grow. So the new tool was consistently delivering an inappropriate milking routine that could increase the number of new infections.

Mastitis is a bacterial infection of udders. The goals of the preparation steps are both to stimulate the cow to let down her milk and to reduce the number of bacteria on the teat skin and at the teat end. To accomplish that, the procedure needs to thoroughly clean the teats and allow adequate time for the sanitizer to kill bacteria.

The report card on the quality of prep procedures is the somatic cell count (SCC) of the cows; their response to infections. It is not enough to adopt practices because they improve consistency without checking the report card to find out if they are really an improvement or a detriment.

AMS units rely on consistency. But their procedures are also limited by time of cow “in the box”. Take more time in the box and the unit milks fewer cows per hour. In a parlor with people doing the milking, we talk about the routine so that times are optimized; time from first touch to attachment and contact time of sanitizer on teats. So typically, we may prep 3 or 4 cows to achieve our goals for each cow. An AMS unit does not have the luxury of time. Sanitizer contact time may be relatively short, resulting in less bacterial kill on the teats.

While AMS distributors talk about the reduced SCC on many farms that buy their units, I want to know the details. What were SCCs before? What bacteria are causing mastitis on the farm? What has been the incidence of new infections with an AMS unit? What is the SCC now? What are the lower limits for SCC with the system?

As I talked with the AMS company representative, he volunteered that it is management on the farm that makes the greatest difference. Technology is no silver bullet to achieve quality. It may help, but people making right decisions and consistently implementing good practices always make the difference.

We have come full circle on the issue of consistency. It is important, however, before developing a consistency plan, either automated or employee based, evaluate the practices to be implemented and the practices in place. How good are they? Are they being consistently implemented? Check your report card and strive for a SCC below 100,000. Quality milk consistently produced is the best consistency.

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