Every dairy herd in the country needs assistance in improving milk quality, and every dairy practice in the country can help them achieve it.
“Whether they have a lot of mastitis or a little, virtually all dairy producers are frustrated by milk quality issues,” says the University of Minnesota’s Paul Rapnicki, DVM, MBA. “They welcome assistance, and who better than the veterinarian to provide it?”
Derek Daniels, DVM, St. Croix Valley Veterinary Clinic, Glenwood City, Wis., has found milk quality to be a rewarding area of specialty, because the return on investment is so quick. “Producers can lower their SCCs, sell more milk and collect larger bonus checks within a few months of the first changes you made in their operations,” he notes. “Few other areas of practice produce such immediate results.”
Getting employees’ buy-in on protocols is crucial to meeting milk quality goals.
While virtually every dairy practice could be providing enhanced milk quality services to their clients, not all of them are. Where should a practitioner who wants to zero-in on milk quality begin? Here are 10 suggestions from the experts.
1. Get educated
“The single most important step toward improving your milk-quality skills is joining and becoming active in the NMC,” declares Rapnicki. The NMC was formerly known as the National Mastitis Council. “That’s your peer group, where everyone interested in milk quality – and that’s not just veterinarians – converges. There’s no better source of research, training and professional networking opportunities.”
When Rapnicki was in practice in Kiel, Wis., he took every milk quality course that the NMC offered, then went out and applied what he learned in practice. Today, as director of the Center for Dairy Health, Management and Food Quality at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, he works on educational outreach programs that provide practicing veterinarians with continuing education opportunities in all areas of production medicine. He is current chair of the NMC Machine Milking Committee, and he serves as the NMC liaison to the AVMA’s Animal Agriculture Liaison Committee.
One practitioner who has taken advantage of milk quality CE courses is Joel Franks, DVM. Three years ago, Dairyland Veterinary Service in Casco, Wis., made the strategic decision to create a diverse team of highly trained practitioners in several management areas. They hired Franks to specialize in milk quality services and have invested in the training and equipment to help him fulfill that role. “In addition to paying for my time, travel and tuition to take formal courses, they also allowed time for me to learn from mentors in the field like veterinarians Andy Johnson and David Reid,” Franks shares. “That kind of experience is priceless.”
(Photo credit: Joel Franks, DVM) Joel Franks, DVM, was hired specifically to develop the milk quality sector at Dairyland Veterinary Service, Casco, Wis.
2. Be an educator
Compliance with prescribed procedures can be one of the most limiting elements of achieving milk quality success, according to Daniels. “Our first goal has to be instilling positive consistency on farms,” he states. “Only after consistency is achieved can we then make additional changes. Real change occurs at the level of daily tasks.” He says good rapport with employees is a must, and he works hard to listen to them and learn from their input. “You should have a goal in mind but also realize that there are a lot of ways to get there. You will only get there if you have the workers’ buy-in, and they understand the reasoning behind it.”
(Photo credit: University of Minnesota) Paul Rapnicki, DVM, MBA, developed milk quality expertise during practice and now advises other practitioners through outreach education from the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.
Spanish language skills also are an asset in employee education, and both Franks and Daniels are working on improving theirs. Franks adds that employee education is an ongoing process of re-education.
3. Establish treatment protocols
Perhaps the most fundamental question related to milk quality is, “What do I do with a case of mastitis?” Rapnicki advises that every dairy client should have anticipated ahead of time what they will do when they are faced with a clinical mastitis case. Having a predetermined protocol in hand greatly improves the medical treatment decisions that are made. Some protocols may be more elaborate than others and ideally would include culturing. Franks advises his clients who don’t culture to at least freeze a sample for future evaluation, in case the initial treatment fails.
4. Work with the client’s situation in mind
Rapnicki says he learned early on that understanding the individual nuances of an operation is critical to making progress. “Most dairies are going to have obstacles that are preventing them from implementing proven techniques that result in having better milk quality.” He advises, “It’s our job as veterinarians to look from the outside in and identify how those obstacles can be removed. Showing clients how to remove obstacles can get proven techniques implemented. In cases where they can’t be removed or the removal is a long process, we have to provide counsel that accommodates them. For example, on-farm culturing could be a disaster for some herds, leaving the owners frustrated and the mastitis more poorly managed than before. In those situations, blanket treatment or no treatment might be the best approach, at least temporarily. There’s no single formula that works for every operation.”
(Photo credit: Derek Danials, DVM) Derek Daniels, DVM, says herds of any size can benefit from veterinary services targeting milk quality.
5. Focus on diagnostics
All three veterinarians believe that culture-based diagnostics are ideal. Daniels points out that accurate diagnostics not only improve treatment outcomes, but also reduce indiscriminate drug use.
An avid outdoorsman, Franks likes to use the analogy of hunting when he describes mastitis diagnostics. “Just as you use different equipment and tactics depending whether you’re hunting for ducks, turkeys or deer, you need to approach mastitis prevention and treatment using diagnostics that allow you to know what you’re hunting. Knowing what bacteria are causing the problem allows you to choose the right strategy to ‘bag ’em,’” he states. “Running a California Mastitis Test on every fresh cow screens for subclinical infections. Culturing clinical cases pinpoints infective organisms and helps us target treatments. Routine bulk-tank culturing provides a herd overview and allows us to watch trends.”
Both Franks and Daniels have many herds equipped with on-farm labs run by trained employees who culture and record clinical cases. New tests like the Minnesota Easy-Culture system and Tri-Plate have made this process quite efficient and empower the dairies to make rapid but accurate treatment decisions. Rapnicki adds that in-clinic and larger, commercial labs also play an important role. “With each level up, the accuracy of the tests probably improves, but the time and distance from the cow also gets longer,” he notes. “It’s the practitioner’s call as to which type of lab to use, depending on what you’re evaluating.”
Two other, critical components of successful diagnostic work are sterile sample collection and accurate sample identification, which also need to be managed with a veterinarian’s training.
6. Get equipped
If your vision of a milk quality “expert” is a traveling peddler in a truck brimming over with stainless-steel gadgets, think again. Franks says you can get a lot of work done with some very fundamental, if not rudimentary, tools. “One of the first things I do with new herds is measure strip yields to determine if cows or individual quarters are being over- or under-milked. You do that with a measuring cup and your hands. Next I’ll probably move into teat-end scoring and parlor flow evaluations, which require a clipboard, paper, pencil and stopwatch. Producers start asking for more when they see the improvements you can make in those areas, but you don’t have to start with anything fancy.”
As a practitioner delves deeper into milk quality services, Rapnicki advises adding one or more of the following basic pieces (and their approximate cost) to his or her equipment stable:
Digital vacuum gauge ($125)
Air flow meter ($200-$500)
Vacuum tracer ($1,000) or vacuum recorder that creates a print-out tape ($5,000)
Flow simulator ($200)
Digital camera and video camcorder ($1,500)
Franks’ practice also recently purchased a Swiss-made Lactocorder® (about $3,000). “The Lactocorder is basically a portable milk meter that measures milk flow every .7 seconds and can gather milk flow data on an individual cow. This information downloads onto a card that can be transferred to a PC and graphed. Upon viewing the milk flow curves from several cows, milking routine and milking equipment can then be evaluated. It’s not a necessity, but it does allow us to create some highly visual evaluations, which makes it a great client-teaching tool,” says Franks.
Finally, all three veterinarians utilize the capabilities of Dairy Comp 305™ to evaluate data, even from herds that are on DHIA recordkeeping only. “If you don’t know your way around Dairy Comp, take a class or pay someone who does to train you,” advises Rapnicki.
One of the first things you can do with new herds is measure strip yields to determine if cows or individual quarters are being over- or under-milked.
7. Get your feet wet
These veterinarians agree that old-fashioned trial and error has helped each of them perfect their skills. When Daniels wants to try something new, he has certain herds in his practice that he knows will welcome new ideas. “I’ll say, ‘I’d like to test this out and not charge you for it,’ and usually they are more than willing to let me experiment.”
Rapnicki drew upon the NMC network of professionals for feedback and support in his early years, often sending them data and soliciting advice on individual situations. He says he also learned a great deal from his clients. “In many cases, there were no textbook answers to the problems I was trying to solve,” he recalls. “Working with clients who push you is a tremendous motivator, and most of my efforts were truly a collaboration of equals.”
8. Cooperate with other parties
Equipment dealers, milk processor field representatives, Extension agents and others also have a stake in your clients’ milk quality. Work with them, not against them, advises Daniels. “I encourage everyone to be at the table so we’re all working toward common goals and for the good of the client. We make a list of bullet points and assign an accountable party to each of them, then come back together at a predetermined date to evaluate progress.”
Rapnicki says written reports generated by the veterinarian and shared with everyone demonstrate the practitioner’s good faith and cooperative spirit. “All of your recommendations should be on the table and 100 percent transparent,” he advises. “If you are not comfortable sharing your recommendations, then you probably shouldn’t be making them.”
Evaluating milking equipment can be an especially treacherous area because the veterinarian could be viewed as an outsider treading where he doesn’t belong. But, Franks says his efforts to collaborate with equipment dealers have resulted in a high level of trust and mutual respect.
Many of the routine monitoring and recordkeeping activities in a practice could potentially be delegated to a capable technician, under the veterinarian’s supervision. “I think the use of skilled technicians is an untapped resource in the profession,” says Rapnicki.
For a time, Daniels’ practice employed a Spanish-speaking technician who provided translation services and assisted with milker training, along with other duties in the practice. “He was a sharp guy and helped us out tremendously, particularly with labor training,” states Daniels. “I’d like to find another employee like him.”
10. Spread the word
Word of mouth from satisfied clients is a powerful promoter, and Daniels makes time to talk to his clients about new ideas. “A lot of clients don’t even know what’s possible and don’t know how to ask for help,” he says. “I like to keep building on successes and adding new services. It keeps them and me motivated.”
Franks’ practice holds semi-annual client meetings at which they bring in third-party expert speakers and showcase their own services. Likewise, he speaks on milk quality to producers in neighboring areas.
Rapnicki advises practitioners to always be on the lookout for new op-portunities. “Help your clients identify problems and identify solutions,” he advises. “You make money solving problems, not just pointing at them.”
Daniels says enhancing milk quality services has been a win-win for the practice that employs him and the clients he serves. “A lot of producers are literally leaving money on the table because they’re not making their quality bonuses. The fees they pay our practice are a small percentage of the extra income they receive, and our bottom line has grown at the same time,” he states.
Franks says his practice’s strategy has worked and opened a whole new world of skills and motivation to him. “The practice’s profitability for employing me never went negative, even when I was taking a lot of time away for training.”
Both Franks and Daniels still practice “traditional” dairy medicine, including regular herd-health checks, emergencies, etc. But they agree that the milk quality specialty makes them feel more well-rounded and fulfilled as professionals. Says Franks, “I still enjoy my herd checks, and I still enjoy treating a milk fever. Actually, I think I enjoy all of my duties more now.”