Canadian Milk is Made to Measure

Milk in the tank means a well-earned cheque in the bank for Canadian dairy farmers. The value of milk—even the smallest drop—is continually on the increase. New technologies can decipher a wealth of information never available before by sampling a dairy cow’s milk, on farm, the moment it’s taken from the udder.

These components have always been present in milk but the science wasn’t readily available for farmers to evaluate them. The ability to break down fat and protein percentages, measure progesterone levels, and look at the somatic cell count—per cow, per milking quarter—presents further opportunities for precision farming. This information is readily available 24/7 and not only benefits the farmer but also members of their off-farm team, the milk processor and consumers. As innovations continue to be adopted on dairy farms—especially when it comes to harvesting milk—the cow emerges as an individual amongst the herd. She has her own history, records and a detailed identity that concerns more than her ear tag number but presents a holistic regard for her well-being.

One of the reasons this information is so accessible to farmers is the installation of robotic milking systems, which milk cows day and night, on a voluntary schedule. They come and go when they please. These robots are equipped with milk sampling systems that test the milk on the cow each time she comes in—other factors such as her weight and rumination are also measured. The slightest fluctuation in any of the above parameters puts the farmer on alert and the cow’s milk is automatically routed from the system, never mixing with the bulk tank.

Forerunners in robotic milking systems are Lely and DeLaval, and even though their systems are individualistic from each other and run on their own unique software, many of the same milk components are analyzed.
On their website, DeLaval describes their milk analysis unit as using an “advanced biological model” to measure the components in the milk. Their crowning glory is the ability to look at progesterone levels. Measuring the progesterone levels in milk allows farmers to accurately identify heats, or the best time to breed a cow, even if she shows no physical signs. This is called a “silent heat.” The DeLaval system can also determine the likelihood of a successful insemination, if the cow is pregnant, or if she was pregnant and has aborted; and the possibility of her being cystic which can make breeding difficult. With robotic milking, a cow visits the robot three times daily—on average—which means that she is being monitored for any health changes at least three times a day.

Lely uses their Milk Quality Control (MQC) system to evaluate milk, and has the device located on the milking arm of the robot so it is as close as possible to the cow, allowing it to evaluate the milk faster. Lely uses the visible colour spectrum when analyzing the milk. MQC can determine the colour of the milk, therefore noticing blood or other irregularities and routing out any suspicious milk from the system. Lely’s MQC also evaluates the milk’s conductivity, temperature and how quick or slow each milking quarter takes. If a cow milks too slowly from her regular speed it could mean she may have an infection, or too quick that she did not milk out fully which can lead to an infection.
In addition to measuring progesterone, DeLaval also measures three other vital elements per cow: mastitis, metabolic disorders and feed protein balance. Lely has the ability to also evaluate protein, fat and lactose. These milk components provide specific information on cow health and present the opportunity to manage milk quality.

Lely and DeLaval can also evaluate the udder health of a cow by analyzing the enzyme LDH (lactate dehydrogenase) which is closely connected to the udder’s somatic cell count and helps to determine mastitis cases. Both the somatic cell count and LDH levels increase at the beginning of an infection. There are two types of mastitis: clinical and subclinical. Clinical mastitis shows visible symptoms such as milk clots and an irritated swollen, red udder. These latter symptoms are sure signs that the cow is already infected. Subclinical involves imperceptible inflammation due to an imbalance between pathogens and immune cells in the udder. If left untreated mastitis will eventually poison the animal. DeLaval states that their system can detect mastitis—exclusively via milk samples—up to three days before any physical symptoms. That provides an invaluable three day head start to begin a treatment plan, and the sooner the cow can recover.
This manner of measuring milk is not exclusive to robotic milking machines, but can also be done through an application for iPhone or iPod Touch. The company Dairy Quality Incorporated created a device that takes a sample of milk. The sample is loaded into the Dairy Quality slide which uses imaging technology to scan the sample, then the image and results are shown on the screen. By counting the somatic cells within the milk and checking for abnormalities, this device also has the ability to determine what bacteria is present in the milk—from mastitis to a yeast infection.

Scrutinizing milk so closely is invaluable to the farmer, who can access the information anytime on whatever device best suits his needs—computer, tablet or phone. This information can also be viewed by veterinarians, feed consultants and anyone else who makes up the farm team, keeping all members current without daily (and sometimes costly) farm visits. Milk processors will only accept milk from Canadian dairy farms that reach their stringent standards—any milk with traces of antibiotics or high bacteria counts is not taken off the farm. Knowing the protein and butterfat percentages benefit the processor when turning Canadian milk into other dairy products, since specific percentages are best suited to making yogurt or cheese, for example.

Farmers also know that consumers care. They care that the milk they drink is top quality, that the cows that make the milk are treated exceptionally well. Even if consumers are not aware of somatic cell counts, or progesterone levels or udder health, Canadian dairy farmers are—they measure it daily—and only the best milk, that meets all those standards, ends up on the consumer’s kitchen table.
We always knew milk was an excellent source of calcium, but now it’s also an excellent source of information. We’ll drink to that.

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