Before everyone I know starts to have a cow, literally and figuratively….or before the people I don’t know that happen to be reading this start cheering like they’ve convinced another sole to join their cult….hold up, back up and listen.
Let me start for those that don’t know me – I do this because in the remote chance that the internet works it’s wonderful/horrible magic of making the weirdest things popular, and who really gives two farts what I think – I know what I’m talking about when it comes to cows, farmers, farming and milk in general. Really I do. I grew up on a dairy. Big deal – so did a bunch of other people that think farming is some romantic way of life. I went to college and earned three degrees….a BS in Animal Science; a BS in Agricultural Extension & Education; and a MS in Dairy Science. I emphasize “earned” because it was a lot of work (with a lot of “play” thrown in). I spent nearly 8 years of my career working at a University as a Dairy Extension Specialist (i.e., educator to dairy producers, 4-H kids, college kids, consumers, legislators; a consultant/problem solver for dairy producers; investigator of research; translator of research; a non-biased source of information for anyone interested in dairy; an advocate of dairy producers; an advocate of the dairy industry; a liaison between producers and consumers; etc.). I spent 4 years working for a small international company using technology and data to investigate and solve milk quality issues on farms. Now, I work for a large international company that sells milking equipment and aftermarket solutions to dairy producers. I have worked with farmers that own 5 cows, and farmers that own 10,000 cows; from Florida to Canada to California to Texas and everywhere in between. I have worked with organic farms, ‘conventional’ farms, what some would call ‘factory farms’, family owned farms, corporate owned farms. I have worked on farms that were the poster child for animal care and consumer mindedness. I’ve worked on some shitholes. I have no problem telling producers what I think is wrong (even if THEY are the problem), and I have no problem telling consumers when they are wrong. I drink cow milk – conventional and organic at times. I drink almond milk. I’ve tried soy milk, and I don’t care for it. I haven’t tried coconut milk. I am a runner. I lift weights. I do yoga. I am a type II diabetic. I am not obese. I have an extreme interest in my health, and am actively involved in my diet and exercise and want to live a healthy life…duh…this is my “running blog”. SOOO….do you believe me now? Think I have enough pizzazz to speak the truth? Or at least enough for you to listen to me? If not…just stop now and don’t bother commenting if you are only going to scream your opinion at me. I don’t have time for that…..I’m writing this because a wonderful family member whom I love dearly has asked me for my opinion. She truly wants what is best for herself, her husband and mostly her 3 beautiful daughters…and yours. I want to calm her fears. Because who wouldn’t be scared silent when someone says – hey, there is pus in your milk!?
One last thing – anything I say here does not reflect the opinion of my employer. I say this b/c this is MY opinion based on MY past experiences and MY education and MY expertise. My opinion has the potential to tick off consumers and dairy producers alike, simply because opinions are like…a certain necessary anatomy that we all sit on….and well, they all stink at some point.
Now, back to pus. There is this claim out there that there are “135 million Pus cells in milk”. Is that true?
Truth be told….there’s more like 378 million in your gallon of milk!
If you’re a consumer – your eyes are the size of silver dollars and your mouth is wide open. If you are a dairy producer – your head just spun around three times, didn’t it?
Let’s talk pus for a moment…such a lovely dinner topic. Are eating yogurt right now? I am…really...I am.
What’s this “pus?” This claim is based on what we in the dairy industry call the cow’s Somatic Cell Count. We use this number to determine when/if a cow has/or has had a mastitis infection (i.e., an infection in her udder….her teats…where the milk comes from….her boobies for crying out loud…talk to any woman that has had a baby and nursed…she knows what this is). The number is expressed as a concentration. There are legal restrictions on this number. There are also market restrictions based upon this number. The higher the number, it’s likely, the worse the infection. The higher the number, the more negative impact on current and future production for that cow. The higher the number, the more likely a farmer will use an antibiotic to treat the cow. The higher the herd average, the more infections a herd has, and the more likelihood of antibiotics being used. The higher the number, the more negative impact on consumer taste tests and yields on manufactured products (like cheese, etc.).
SO HOLY SHIT!!!! ISN’T 378 MILLION A HIGH NUMBER???
Not really. Really! Not really.
Let’s talk science and biology for a moment. So what is a somatic cell? In the most basic terms, it is a white blood cell (WBC). One of the functions of a WBC is to kill invasive microbes. We are all familiar with that “pus” from an infection. We know what it looks like, smells like, etc. So why would we want that in our milk?? Stop it. Just stop going there for a minute.
One of the other most basic, crucial functions of a white blood cell is to be a sentry. It is their job to patrol their area and detect whether the cells they come into contact with are “good” or “bad”. If they come into contact with “bad” cells or invasive cells, they raise the alarm and cause an immune response – or call in reinforcements – or whatever you want to call it. If an invasive microbe is in the mammary system, you WANT there to be an immune response. You WANT millions and billions and gazillions of WBCs to flood the mammary system to kill the invaders! If this happens, then guess what – that cow’s immune system is healthy and functioning properly. If this does not happen or if the cow cannot beat the invasion on her own, then the farmer must use an antimicrobial to treat the infection – we’ll save whether it should be organic or non-organic for another discussion.
So, what’s an acceptable number? The legally defined number for the sale of raw milk that is being transported across state lines to a processing plant (for making bottled milk, cheese, whatever) is 750,000 somatic cells/ml of milk. The number that the EU uses is 400,000 cells/ml. The marketing forces in the dairy industry in the US (i.e., the large export market) have forced nearly all of our milk plants to use a 400,000 cells/ml limit despite the higher legal limit. Some individual milk processing companies have even tighter market standards, like 250,000 cells/ml. They offer bonuses to individual farms with low herd somatic cell counts, and penalties for those with higher counts.
Those numbers still sound high!? Is that what you’re thinking? You know it is.
Through DECADES of scientifically sound, verified and repeatable research, we as an industry have determined that there is a lower limit of somatic cells at which we can say definitively that a cow is infection free. There is a range of numbers that we say the chances of a cow having an infection are very low. There is a number at which we can determine a cow either has a current infection, or is recovering from an infection. These numbers are universal across all dairies, of all sizes, of all housing systems, of all feeding systems, of all creeds, religions, races and breeds. So what I’m saying is this….
If you think that organic, raw, “lightly pasteurized”, local, family owned, “small”, Amish or otherwise blessed cows have less “pus” than conventionally managed, freestall housed, factory farmed, corporately owned cows….you would be wrong.
So what are these magic numbers?
At less than 100,000 somatic cells per ml, a cow is infection free. From 100,000 to 200,000, she is most likely infection free. The chances of her having an infection are so small that they are not detectable. From 200,000 and above, she either has a current infection or is recovering from an infection. In some cases, depending on the invading bacteria, a cow’s somatic cell count can go from 100,000 to 8 million within 12 hours. Or it may only rise to 500,000. It always takes longer to get a somatic cell count to go back down than it does to go up! Why is that? Because another important role of WBCs is to clean the house after the bacteria-frat party. The high presence of these cells continues after the invaders have been killed (either by other WBCs or through antimicrobials) to get rid of dead bacteria cells, dead mammary cells, damaged milk components, etc. This can take weeks, when the active infection only lasted for 2-5 days.
So here’s some more facts for you:
- (Without going into a lot of math detail about geometric non-weighted means vs milk-weighted geometric somatic cell count means): Data from 46.5% of all milk produced in the US in 2011…. the average somatic cell count was 259,000 cells/ml
- In 2012, there were approximately 58,000 dairy farms in the US.
- There are only approximately 780 dairy farms in the US that have more than 2000 cows.
- Those 780 dairy farms with more than 2000 cows produced approximately 34% of the total US milk in 2012.
- There are approximately 950 operations with 1000-1999 cows, which accounted for 16% of the total US milk in 2012.
(Feel free to verify these numbers with the National Ag Stats Service).
So, in short, that means that half of the milk in this country is being produced by about 1700 farms of the 58,000 farms still in business, and these 1700 farms have more than 1000 cows each.
So now you’re thinking that the BIG, SCARY, FACTORY FARMS ARE FULL OF COWS THAT HAVE HIGH SOMATIC CELL COUNTS AND TONS OF PUS WHICH IS HALF OF OUR MILK SUPPLY!!!??? Right? You know that’s what you’re thinking.
Again, you’d be wrong. Here’s a pretty table for you to look at with real data and statistics…
(It was taken from this article:
Yes, this is an industry publication, but the data set is one of the most complete and well respected sources in the entire industry. This article focuses on Western dairies – because let’s face it, the average herd size out west is bigger than other states.)
The data indicates that larger farms tend to have lower somatic cell counts! Lower somatic cell counts means lower rates of mastitis infections. Say it ain’t so!? Yes. It is so. So, stop blaming large farms for your bad lot in life.
Back to my bazillion “pus” cells in milk. Where did I get that number from?
Since 100,000 somatic cells (or white blood cells) per ml is considered an uninfected cow (remember if a cow has 0 somatic cells per ml of milk…she’s a dead cow), we’re going to use that number.
There are 3785.41 ml per 1 gallon of milk.
(3785 ml/gal) x (100,000 SC/ml) = 378,500,000 somatic cells (WBCs) per gallon of milk.
Let’s go with 200,000 SC/ml, because that’s close to our national herd’s average somatic cell count, and what we in the industry practically consider “mastitis free”….
(3785 ml/gal) x (200,000 SC/ml) = 757,000,000 somatic cells (WBCs) per gallon of milk
So, when you hear that there are millions of “pus” cells in your milk. Be glad for it. You know that those white blood cells are from a healthy cow!
If you have a real question or concern, I will entertain it. But realize I have a day job and some of this info is technical and scientific and I have to look it up because I’m not an encyclopedia. However, I will analyze it and decide if it’s real science or junk science….or just 98% bullshit with sprinkles of truth on top. Sprinkles will get your attention and make things look yummy, but you still don’t want a piece of that pie. Trust me.