2009 was an awful year for producer milk prices, but another good one for milk quality.

According to the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, average bulk tank somatic cell count (BTSCC) for milk in the U.S. improved significantly in 2009 for the second year in a row.

USDA-APHIS looks at milk quality two ways: a "producer" average where BTSCCs from each farm are simply averaged together, and a "milk-weighted" average as though all milk came out of a single blended bulk tank.

In a "producer" situation a 100-cow dairy making 15,000 pounds per cow with 500,000 SCC, and a 1,000-cow dairy making 22,500 pounds with 200,000 SCC would be averaged together to generate a BTSCC of 350,000. In a "milk-weighted" situation, the blended average of the two dairies would be 218,750 SCC.

During 2009, milk-weighted SCC average in the U.S. was 227,000, down 20,000 from 2008 and 33,000 less than in 2007. By comparison, producer SCC average was 277,000 in 2009.

The agency's 2009 milk quality report gently reinforced an important notice from USDA earlier this year that milk used by U.S. dairy processors to make products shipped into the European Union will soon have to meet E.U. quality regulations of 400,000 SCC or less. In its summary the report said, "The recognition of the European Union testing requirements will likely put increased pressure on the U.S. to adopt a 400,000 BTSCC limit in the near future."

During 2009, only about 75 percent of all milk monitored met this requirement, so there's still plenty of work on quality to be done.