In 2009, Green Valley Dairy, Krakow, Wis., was looking for ways to better manage costs. An on-farm culture lab was one potential way to do that, by cutting costs in mastitis treatment and gaining milk by not withholding.

“But today, our focus for using the lab is just as much philosophical, to use less antibiotics,” says John Jacobs Jr. The Jacobs family manages 3,500 cows on their dairy, established in 2000. The farm, owned by John and Mark Jacobs, John’s three sons—John Jr., Paul and Joe—and Ken Peters, is first generation.

“Being first-generation probably helps because we know there is a lot we don’t know, so I might be less afraid to ask questions,” Jacobs says.

First attempt a failure

Jacobs took charge of their culture lab after it was introduced as a vendor. They first started to culture in a setting that was easy to implement, probably too easy.

They set up an incubator in an area that wasn’t always clean, and Jacobs had read he did not need a microscope for some aspects. “But I was wrong,” he says.

In their second approach, they decided to go all in. They cut their office space in half to make room for cupboards and cabinets, a refrigerator, sink, an incubator and counter space. It is now an area, 7' by 14', that is kept as clean as possible and in the most sanitary area of the farm.

“It’s small and simple,” Jacobs says. “But now it has optimized other areas of our dairy.”

The basic milk quality portion started with Jacobs reading and adapting the University of Minnesota’s Easy Culture System II. They posted pictures on the walls to help identify the offending bacteria when found.

But, Jacobs admits, it took three months of failure to learn all of what he was previously unfamiliar with. Through training and talking to experts, he was able to correct his mistakes. From there, things improved and his work ended up touching everything from their fresh cow bucket to their digester.

They wrote strict protocols in Spanish and English, and after Jacobs had optimized the system, he was able to train employees and kept finding other uses for what was originally just a milk quality lab.

Today, their lab helps with 16 specific items on the farm:

  • Abnormal milk
  • Mycoplasma
  •  Bio-solids
  • Parlor towels   
  • Dip cups  
  • Somatic cell count   
  • Calf IgGs  
  • Digester manure  
  • Maternity bucket 
  • Calf tubers  
  • Calf bottles 
  • Bottle nipples   
  • Pasteurized milk 
  • Calf milk feed lines
  • Calf machines
  • Milk and meat residues

Each item is worked into a protocol where random testing ensures protocols on the rest of the farm are working properly and being executed as intended. Items such as the maternity milk bucket, auto-feeders for calves and parlor towel cleanliness are routinely checked on a rotating basis, however the workers are not warned ahead of time before the manager arrives.

“The dirty little secret of an on-farm lab is the enforcement of protocols out-side the lab,” Jacobs says.

Cut 40% of mastitis treatments

They collect milk samples by 7 a.m., which are read the following day by 6 a.m. Based on results, they follow a decision tree using the Minnesota Easy Culture II System. A bi-plate is cut in half to use half as many plates per sample. Today, they are treating just 60% of the cows they would have treated for mastitis before.

Another trick is they identify teats as they do feet, with 1, 2, 3 and 4, representing the location of the leg or teat in clockwise order.

“When I say we had a challenge before,” Jacobs says, “that may be an understatement.”

The culture system helped them identify Mycoplasma and implement a control and cull system to remove it from the herd.

“We were being reactive before,” Jacobs says. “We were using way too many trailing indicators. Whether it was a protocol compliance or equipment breakdown, we would find out after the fact. Now, we can correct it before there are huge breakdowns.”

Note: This story appeared in the November 2016 issue of Dairy Herd Management.