What makes them tick?


Dynamic evaluation of operation can be enough to ignite change

Yesterday I made a farm visit to a customer who was dealing with high somatic cell counts. Upon reviewing the history of the problem, I learned that his counts had been ranging between 500,000 and 1,000,000 cells per ml for several years. Whenever I hear of counts that high, I tend to picture a herd with significant management problems in multiple areas.

A review of his DHIA records showed that in other parameters, the herdwas doing reasonably well. The rolling herd average for milk was more than22,000 and reproductive indices were acceptable. His cull rate was verylow, allowing him to sell springing heifers as an additional income source.

Starting the investigation

I began the cell count investigation by evaluating his milking systemin a "static state", meaning cows were not being milked. Thisevaluation was done with all teat cups plugged, vacuum applied to the clawsand pulsators operating. In other words, we were duplicating actual milkingconditions as closely as possible.

With the system configured in this manner, I measured effective reserve,manual reserve, system vacuum level, recovery time and pulsator function.Most of these factors were within acceptable limits, but the rest phaseof the pulsation curve was very short, running just under the minimum suggestedlevel of 20 milliseconds. I next obtained milk samples from the cows withhigh cell counts, and also one from the bulk tank. Learning the type oforganism that is causing the elevated cell counts is often very helpful.

Dynamic evaluation

The next step was to do a "dynamic" evaluation of the system,which is done as cows are actually being milked. Doing this revealed thatvacuum in the claw on fast milking cows averaged less than 10.5 inches.This is below recommended levels, and implies that inadequate vacuum ispresent to properly collapse the inflation and massage the teat. The shortrest phase noted earlier will magnify this deficiency.

At this point, the owner stated that he had been considering changinghis pulsation ratio to 60 percent milk and 40 percent rest. The currentsetting was 70 percent milk and 30 percent rest. I replied that I thoughtthe change would be helpful, but that he also should raise the system vacuumby one-half inch to provide better massage.

Human error?

The owner then offered another observation, one more important than anythingcovered to that point. "I know the main problem is with me. Peoplehave told me for years that I should not use a common washrag, and thatI should not prepare cows so far ahead of milking. They also told me thatI should dip every cow. For some reason, I just don't change."

As I discussed all of this with him, I learned that this message hadbeen given to him by his regular veterinarian, a consulting veterinarianand his nutritionist. He did not dispute the validity of these recommendations,but he did not adapt them either. I could not help but wonder what the realpurpose of my visit was, if he already knew how to solve the problem.

As the milking process proceeded, I observed that he prepared two orthree cows at once in this tie stall barn, then attached units as they becameavailable when other cows finished milking.

He operated four units alone, so that a fair degree of overmilking tookplace. He did use a common rag to prep many cows, although he had papertowels available. And he only dipped certain animals, according to somescheme I could not understand.

Take a moment

Let's pause here for moment to consider things. This gentleman was asuccessful dairy producer. Most aspects of herd management were going well.Yet, he tolerated a problem with elevated somatic cell counts when he knewhow to fix it. Why would he do that?

After some more "informal" discussion as he proceeded withthe milking process, I think I uncovered the answer. He revealed that approximately10 years ago he had built this barn, and installed a pipeline milking system.Before that, he had milked in an older building, using "bucket"milkers. He stated that with the bucket milkers, his somatic cell countconsistently ran below 100,000 cells per ml.

While I was skeptical about this statement, there was no doubt he believedit. Furthermore, he informed me, he accomplished those levels while usingthe same milking procedures as now, except he did not dip any cows.

It was very clear to me that in this producer's mind, the pipeline milkerwas the real culprit. I also noticed that he was eager to make the minorchanges I recommended for the equipment. The reason he had not changed hismilking procedures was that he really did not believe they were part ofthe problem, based on his experience.

As we continued to visit I sensed he was beginning to build some confidencein me.

Show him the way

When he was roughly half way through milking, I asked permission to demonstratethe "once down under" technique of cow prep. This technique involveswaiting until a unit is off the previous cow, and available at the stallbefore prepping the next one. Then dip is applied, and the teats are cleanedwith a gloved hand while simultaneously stimulating milk let down. After30 seconds of cleaning and stimulation, the dip is wiped off, and the unitattached.

This procedure ensures a strong oxytocin release, as well as properlysanitized teats. Cows milk out quickly. I urged the producer in this caseto try this protocol, and to run three units instead of four. Faster milkoutmeans units must be changed faster. Since he was overmilking to some extent,he would not be able to keep up with four units.

By the time I was ready to leave the farm, he was following the new protocol.Although he stated it seemed very awkward, he also said, "I can learnto do this." Of course, that does not mean he will. However, I sensedthat this time his "pain" over the elevated cell counts reacheda point where he may address the real problem. I think my listening to himexplain some of the herd history gave some validation to his reluctanceto change. This fact alone may allow him to "get past" whatevermental/emotional blockage he had been experiencing.

I have often thought that a psychology degree would be helpful to veterinariansas we deal with clients. I guess that would be true for all professionsthat endeavor to affect change in people. In any event, it is very helpfulto realize that factual information alone is often not the solution to theproblems we encounter.

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