FARIBAULT, Minn. – The National Mastitis Council recently handed out its National Quality Awards for quality milk production. Randy and Kathleen Bauer of RKB Dairy were selected as one of six platinum winners in the program.

And this isn’t the first award RKB has won for its milk. The Bauers have won the award the second-most number of times in the 25 years the award has existed.

The Bauer family has been producing milk for more than three decades. When the Bauers were first married they bought the farm from his father’s estate. They were milking about 30 cows in what was a stanchion barn back then.

“As things got more expensive we needed more income,” Kathleen Bauer said. “We gradually expanded and now have a free-stall barn and a pit parlor to milk in.”

One of the biggest challenges in the business is technology, she said.

“When you look at things like genomics for the (artificial-insemination) bulls, there’s a lot of information out there to take in,” she said. “Fine-tuning and balancing the feed rations is another important thing to keep on top of.”

The couple’s son, Glen, is a big part of the family business.

“He milks at night and I milk in the morning,” Kathleen Bauer said.

The family works hard seven days a week to produce milk. Bauer said they appreciate being recognized for that hard work.

“Farming isn’t really conducive to awards,” she said with a chuckle. “You really do put a lot of hard work in. I suppose if you wanted to get awards, you probably shouldn’t go into farming. You do it for the love of farming. But yes it does feel good to get recognized and we’re very humbled by it.”

Producers must be nominated for the award by someone they work with – such as a processing plant or a veterinarian.

“They give out the awards for producing high-quality milk day-in and day-out,” Bauer said. “You have to send in a lot of information, including from the plant we sell to, for accuracy. They want to know all of the standard operating procedures and what you’re doing every day. It’s not just about the numbers; it’s also about how you get those numbers.”

The numbers looked at in the initial application are the average somatic-cell count and the standard plate count, said JoDee Sattler, communications and public-relations coordinator at the council.

The key is putting clean milking machines on clean cows, Bauer said.

“If the cow and the machine aren’t clean when you’re milking her, the machine will actually force bacteria back up into her udder if she’s not cleaned first,” she said. “It’s about continuously following the procedures we’ve established to clean cows before and after milking.”

Top applicants must meet certain standards in order to be among the 50 or 60 dairies that move on to the final round.

“The award is given out based on low levels of bacteria in the standard plate count,” Sattler said. “They want low somatic-cell count based on what you ship to the processing plant.”

Each final-round applicant must then complete a much more detailed application. Judges look at numerous aspects of each operation before they select the winners. They look at milking routine, cow comfort, udder-health-monitoring programs, treatment and prevention programs, strategies for overall herd health and welfare, and adherence to drug use and record-keeping regulations.

“The judges said the point-spread between winners and losers is usually pretty thin,” Sattler said. “It’s quite a close competition.”

A dairy must be among the elite in order to successfully compete in the contest, she said. Farmers like the Bauer family are sticklers for details.

“I’ve been with the program for more than a decade,” she said. “It’s been interesting to see the kinds of farms that enter the competition. We’ve had an organic farm; we’ve had an Amish farm and even a robotic dairy. We’ve had farms with herds of all sizes, with a top-end size of 2,500 cows.

“That’s what I love about this program. If someone tries to poke holes in it and say it’s only for a certain type of dairy, all I have to do is show them the numbers.”