By Tom Collins
ALMA — A Wellington County dairy farmer who has one of the lowest somatic cell count (SCC) herds in Ontario says it’s a lot easier to maintain a low SCC than to reduce it.
Marten Bylsma, of Opsterlawn Holstein at Alma, about 30 minutes northwest of Guelph, has had an SCC score below 100,000 for the past 18 years, but it wasn’t easy getting there. Twenty years ago, when some early-model robotic milkers had glitches, he was the second farmer in North America to put in a robot. It didn’t work — “It was a disaster,” he says — and ripped out the robot after eight months. But by then, the damage had been done. His somatic cell count had gone from around 100,000 per cow to over 300,000, and about 40 per cent of his herd had staph aureus, which is highly contagious but doesn’t always show right away and can lead to mastitis.
He spent two years getting that cell count down. The cows were milked three times a day for six months while being treated. Cows with staph aureus were always milked last to prevent spreading the bacteria. All the cow udders were pre- and post-dipped and the milking system was dipped in chlorine water after milking each staph aureus-infected cow so the system wouldn’t infect the next cow.
He later bought a pasteurizer to feed calves pasteurized milk, which helps prevent staph aureus from spreading through the milk to the calves. “If you want a low cell count, and you feed whole milk, you’re going to (need) a pasteurizer,” he said.
Other influencers are dipping the dry cows twice a day and breeding for a low somatic cell count, something he continues to do today.
“Longevity is my number one criteria, and that ties right into fertility and somatic cell score,” he said. “They basically go hand in hand. If you want cows to remain longer in the herd, you’re going to have to have low cell count.”
Keeping the stalls and barn clean also go a long way to low SCC scores, he said. “Manure should never be in stalls and the alleys should be clean,” he said. “If you keep everything very clean, once you have a low (SCC), you can maintain it very easily.”
Bylsma, who milks 300 cows twice a day in a double-12 parallel parlour, said he chuckles when he sees stories of other low SCC herds. All the things other farms do, he never does. He doesn’t use gloves during milking, he only dry treats half the cows, never uses orbeseal teat sealant and never vaccinates for mastitis.
“If you look at what some people do versus what we do, yeah, we don’t do a whole lot,” he said. “We had to do a lot of work to get the somatic cell count back on track. And it worked. And it just always stayed there. It’s a bit of work, but to me, anyone can do it. Anyone can have a lower somatic cell count if they really wanted to. But it just takes a bit of effort in the beginning.”
After getting that SCC score below 100,000 18 years ago, Bylsma doesn’t even look to improve his score anymore. Changes to the barn are for other reasons, and if the somatic cell count also decreases, great. If not, no big deal. One such change came last year, when the bedding was changed from mats to sand. This brought the SCC score down even more, but the goal of sand bedding was to improve cow comfort.
Last year, his herd averaged an SCC score of 63,000, fourth lowest in the province. In the first few months of this year, the herd averaged in the low 40,000s, and dropped as low as 32,000 in January and 35,000 in February. “I really don’t care if it’s 30,000 or 60,000. To me, there’s really no difference. I don’t go for that.”
WESTERN ONTARIO: Dairy farmer now has one of the lowest somatic cell counts in Ontario
By Tom Collins