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Tips and Tweaks to Lower Somatic Cell Counts

Tips and Tweaks to Lower Somatic Cell Counts 

By Katie Drewitz, University of Minnesota Extension 

PRESTON and CALEDONIA, Minn. (06/14/2022) —Several Fillmore and Houston county farms were recently recognized by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture for their low somatic cell counts (SCC). SCC are a long-standing marker of milk quality; impacting shelf life and flavor. There are several tips and tweaks you can make that can help lower the somatic cell count on your farm which will help to avoid potential penalties in milk price from your milk plant. 

Understanding the Problem

First, understand what the problem is. Bulk tank somatic cell count (BTSCC) is the measure used to test milk quality for a herd. Just a few cows with really high individual SCC can skew the entire bulk tank high. The culprits could also be many cows in the herd with cell counts that stay high on a long term basis. It’s important to understand what the situation is on your farm in order to best manage the issue. BTSCC numbers, which can be found on Dairy Herd Improvement Association (DHIA) reports, only tell one part of the story. On your DHIA report, also look at linear SCC scores, percent infected by Days in Milk (DIM), and the “Changes in SCC Status” box to get a better picture of what’s happening with cell counts on your farm. Is the issue heifers calving in with high SCC? Is there a high rate of new infections? Is there a high percentage of chronic cows? In addition, be sure to look at individual cow reports. This can help you pinpoint problem cows and potentially make culling decisions. 

Another strategy that may be useful is culturing milk to determine what you’re really fighting. Start with a bulk tank culture; this will give an overall view of what the issue really is on your farm. Knowing if the problem is environmental, contagious, or something else will narrow down the strategy you should use to combat the issue. It may be helpful to take bulk tank samples on multiple test days in order to get the clearest picture of what you’re dealing with; sometimes one organism can overwhelm the plate so much that other present organisms won’t even show up. Getting a few consistent culture results will give you the best idea of the problem. You may also want to consider culturing some cows individually, especially those that consistently have high SCC or cows coming in with new infections. Just like carefully reviewing reports, culturing milk allows you to gain the best understanding of what the issues are on your farm and can help you develop the best plan of attack. 

If the Issue is Contagious

Culture results may reveal a presence of contagious organisms like Staph aureus, Strep ag, or mycoplasma. If this is the case, there are few key tweaks you can make that could help reduce the spread of these organisms if culling isn’t an option. Contagious cows should always be milked last, to avoid spreading the organisms to non-infected cows. This may mean moving cows to a different area of the barn or into a different pen. Keeping these cows separate is crucial to reducing spread of the contagious organisms. In addition, proper pre- and post-dipping of teats should be reviewed. Ensure the teat dip you’re using is effective against the problem organisms and, more importantly, determine if you are getting proper teat dip coverage. Pre-dip should have a contact time of at least 30 seconds with the teat skin surface. Post-dip should fully cover the teat. It is also important to look at equipment function and cleaning as well as the entire cow prep procedure. You may also want to consider universal dry cow therapy for your herd, if you aren’t already doing so.

If the Issue is Environmental

If culture results reveal a high prevalence of environmental organisms, the keywords to remember are clean and dry. Consider adding more bedding to stalls or packs, and changing bedding more often. It may be beneficial to bed twice a day if you notice cows are really getting wet and dirty. The goal is to create an environment that is hard for these organisms to survive in. Make sure cleaning equipment is kept clean and spray off any equipment that may get dirty during milking. The cow prep procedure also comes into play here. Getting teats clean during milking prep is critical. There should not be any dirt or manure present on teats. Taking the time to make sure teats are fully clean will make a huge difference in the presence of environmental organisms. Teat dip also plays an important role in fighting environmental issues. 


Our goal here quality cow care and to avoid penalties from high somatic cell counts. Be sure to carefully read DHIA reports to understand the management groups that may be the biggest contributors. Consider culturing both your bulk tank and individual cows to know what types of organisms are causing problems. Reducing somatic cell counts is rarely a complicated puzzle, all it takes is attention to detail and a few small tweaks to get it under control. For additional milk quality resources, visit www.qualitycounts.umn.edu. To read more about recognized farms please visit the Minnesota Department of Agriculture website. If you have any questions, please contact your local Extension educator. Fillmore and Houston County residents can call the Fillmore County Extension office at 507-765-3896, the Houston County Extension office at 507-725-5807, or directly at wins0115@umn.edu, or my cell at 507-951-6609.

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