Bulk milk somatic cell count (BMSCC) is a frequently used parameter to estimate the subclinical mastitis prevalence in a dairy herd, but it often differs considerably from the average SCC of all individual cows in milk. In this study, first the sampling variation was determined on 53 dairy farms with a BMSCC ranging from 56 000 to 441 000 cells/ml by collecting five samples on each farm of the same bulk tank. The average absolute sampling variation ranged from 1800 to 19 800 cells/ml. To what extent BMSCC represents all lactating cows was evaluated in another 246 farms by comparing BMSCC to the average herd SCC corrected for milk yield (CHSCC), after the difference was corrected for the sampling variation of BMSCC. On average BMSCC was 49 000 cells/ml lower than CHSCC, ranging from -10 000 cells/ml to 182 000 cells/ml, while the difference increased with an increasing BMSCC. Subsequently, management practices associated with existing differences were identified. Farms with a small (<20%) difference between BMSCC and CHSCC administered intramuscular antibiotics for the treatment of clinical mastitis more often, used the high SCC history when cows were dried off more frequently and had a higher number of treatments per clinical mastitis case compared with farms with a large (20%) difference. Farms feeding high-SCC milk or milk with antibiotic residues to calves were 2.4-times more likely to have a large difference. Although sampling variation influences the differences between BMSCC and CHSCC, the remaining difference is still important and should be considered when BMSCC is used to review the average herd SCC and the subclinical mastitis prevalence.