Doing Standard Plate Counts- On the Farm

Aerobic plate count Petrifilm Plate, red dots are colony forming units, black dots have been counted using a Sharpie pen

Who would have thought having your own on-farm lab would be so easy- and affordable? I am kicking myself for not trying this sooner.  Doing our own, in house, milk quality tests will help our small, licensed dairy to stay on top of cleaning regimens and milk quality. Even though our results will not be official (you have to be a certified lab to have official results) they will still assist us and even help inspectors know that our food safety program is more complete. So just what is a “plate count and how do you do it yourself?

Plate counts were traditionally preformed by taking a small sample of a substance and pouring or swabbing it onto a glass petri dish that held had a gelled growth medium. The plate was then kept warm for a certain number of hours after which a lab technician would literally count the number of “dots” on the plate. The dots were each a cluster of bacteria called a “colony forming unit” (cfu for short).  The most common plate test is the “standard or aerobic plate count” (SPC or APC).

Fortunately for us, 3M makes a wonderful, simplified product called Petrifilm Plates. These plates are ready to use, needing no added growth medium. They are also inexpensive, costing about .70 cents each (for the aerobic count) and come in a box of 100. You will also need an incubator and luckily, a compact, low tech unit (costing about 70.00) is sold by the same company from which we already buy a lot of our supplies, Nelson Jameson ( They also sell the 3M Petrifilm plates and other needed

Compact Incubator from Nelson Jameson

supplies. In addition to the aerobic count plates, it is a good idea to also buy coliform plates (a box of 50 is 38.00). You will need a count plate spreader (a little plastic disc made especially for spreading the sample onto the Petrifilm plate) and, if you want to do swab tests on dry surfaces, 3M Quick Swabs work great. The Quick Swabs are a bit more expensive, about 1.50 each and come in a box of 50.

The SPC grows all kinds of bacteria from milk or swabs of surfaces- even the good bacteria. For example, if you took a sample of milk during cheesemaking, the plate count numbers would be through the roof, but that is what you would want. Milk fresh from the udder, however, should have very low counts, preferable less than 1,000 cfu per milliliter.


Step by Step Instructions for Plating a Milk Sample

  1. Obtain a 1 ml sample of milk using a sterilized 1ml syringe or a pipette.
  2. Lift the film on the room temperature Petrifilm plate and place the sample in the center.
  3. Lower the film gently.
  4. Center the plate spreader, smooth side up, over the sample, lower onto film and press firmly to spread the sample in an even circle.
  5. Place the Petrifilm in the incubator at 90 F (note: the compact incubator from Nelson Jameson states that the shelf temperature is 10 degrees lower than the thermometer readout, so adjust your temperature accordingly) and incubate for 48 hours.
  6. After 45-50 hours (48 is ideal) remove the plate from the incubator.
  7. Using a fine tipped Sharpie pen, count each red dot, no matter how small, using the pen to mark as you count (so that you don’t double count any cfu’s).
  8. If the plate has very few red dots, then count the entire plate. If there are quite a few, you can count one square and multiply the result by 20.  Do this with several squares so that you get an accurate average. (Each square represents 1 square centimeter and the plate area is 20 square centimeters, thus the multiplication by 20)


If an undiluted sample grows too many cfu’s it is impossible to get a good count, since the plate will be over crowded with overlapping colonies.  You can carefully dilute the sample with sterile water by 50% and then multiply the resulting count by two. (For example, say I diluted the ml of milk with half sterile water and then count between 200 and 250 cfu’s per square. I would then multiply that number by two for 400-500, and then multiply that by 20 for 4,000-5,000 cfu/ml.)

Another useful Petrifilm plate is called the coliform count plate. These have a growth medium that will only allow for coliforms (harmless and bad) to grow. So if you want to know how many of those cfu’s on your standard count are coliforms, this test is a great follow up. Coliforms are the most common problem bacteria in milk and in a cheese plant (and sometimes the deadliest). So low coliform counts from work surfaces and equipment, as well as in milk and brine, are a great confirmation of good processes. Coliform counts should be much lower than SPC’s, a reading of less than 10 cfu/ml is ideal.

Petrifilm plates should be stored in a cool, dry area. Be sure to tightly seal the individual film packets. They are so sensitive that they can simply be exposed (with the cover film pealed back) to the air and culture contaminants via that route. So you don’t want to expose them until ready to inoculate.

You should know that you may not run tests for anyone other than yourself. You can let people run their own using your incubator, but you may not run a test and provide a count result, that is only for certified professionals. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a “plating party” and show others how to count their own!

There are several other Petrifilm plates that I will probably try out on our farm, including staph aureus for udder health, and yeasts and molds, for cheese quality. I’ll be sure to share whatever I learn with all of you.  But for now, this is enough to work on. Oh, as a way of logging our results, I plan on take a photograph of each counted plate and keeping those on file.


Your Happy Lab Geek, Gianaclis

23 thoughts on “Doing Standard Plate Counts- On the Farm

  1. Thanks so much for posting this! I have always felt that running my own tests would be cost prohibitive and too technical but I think I will give this a try. The start-up costs are actually very reasonable!

  2. Hello, I am very interested in this and wonder if this relates to e-coli at all? That is usually the scary bacteria that you hear about as it relates to raw milk. For now I am just milking a few Nigerians for our family but may branch out into the future. Thanks! Cristen of Caprikoda Croft

      • How cool is that?! I clean all of my hoses and milking equipment with bleach everyday and use a clean process but always worry as I am feeding my 1 year old child and would love to have a reassurance that my milk is as clean as it can be! I would also love to sell the raw milk but am too afraid to do so, this would certainly ease my fears. This might be a stupid question but what does the anaerobic and coliform counts tell you?

      • Totally cool!
        the Aerobic standard count will grow and show ALL bacteria, good and bad, in the milk. The article tells you the goal levels. For coliform counts, the goal should be very low numbers, ideally less than 10 per ml of milk. Does that make sense, if not, I can explain it further.

  3. Hi, Gianaclis – Are there any isolation concerns? Should I keep this testing outside my creamery? I think I’ve heard that as one concern / reason for ‘normal’ folk not doing these tests. But I definitely want to do add this to our quality control process, when we get going. Ab-so-lute-ly!

    Thank you!!

    • Hi Marilyn,
      The only one that you should not do on site, from what my mentors have told me, is the listeria plate. Those should be done off-site and properly destroyed. I am not ready to do those myself!

  4. Fascinating!! Thank you for doing this and sharing your results – makes me think it’s possible to do this on a simple home dairy.

  5. Thank you!!! Prices have gone up a bit… as with everything… but this is still a much more economical way to test… and makes it possible to test more often than paying overnight shipping to a lab. That means that it will actually get done. 🙂 I also love having the results so fast.

  6. Awesome. Thanks so much for posting these. I’m going to be putting in my new dairy facility in a month or two. I have a microscope too, and want to do some of my own various testing. Milk quality and listeria are among what I want to test. Have you done lactic acid testing too? I’m going to read and watch what you have done and try it. I plan to have a location in my new facility just for this purpose.


  7. Pingback: Testing Safety of Raw Milk | peggythinx

  8. Thank you so much for posting this! I have spent the last 2 hours looking for exactly this kind of information. Thank you so much!!!!!!

  9. Thanks for this valuable info. It gets so frustrating for me to do periodic health checks on my milk cow using Dairy Labs. I appreciate their value but all the over-nighting and packaging is just too expensive and too difficult. Our cow is for our personal use but I always check her milk quality upon freshening and periodically through her lactation. Though the mini icubator you mention is no longer on the website you provided I can put together a package for a couple hundred dollars on ebay. Thanks again!

  10. Sure thing! You could call Nelson Jameson and see if they still sell the incubator. I think many things might be in the print catalog that aren’t on the site. Still, glad you can figure it out yourself!

  11. Hi, I’m trying to determine the best testing protocols for our small goat herd, and I’m wondering whether I would still want to do SCCs if I’m doing regular SPC and Coliform tests. Any advice?

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