Archive: Helping Solve the Mastitis Puzzle

Published 5 June 09

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Mastitis is like a jigsaw puzzle, says Wiltshire dairy farmer David Homer.  You can't solve the puzzle until you know you are working with all the right pieces.

It was identifying the right pieces in the mastitis puzzle at his dairy unit at Chisbury Lane Farm, near Marlborough, that David Homer found such a useful part of the DairyCo Mastitis Control Plan. Mr Homer was one of the first producers to take part in the original research, back in spring of 2004, that led to the development of the DairyCo Mastitis Control Plan.

The plan has now been launched nationally, and the first veterinary surgeon and consultant training event has recently taken place in Somerset. The initiative works closely with trained vets and consultants to roll out farm-specific plans to reduce mastitis and its associated costs and improve udder health and productivity. In historic terms there has been a notable reduction in clinical mastitis and bulk milk somatic cell counts nationally in the past few decades, due in no small part to the implementation of the Five Point plan. But more recent years have seen national average bulk milk somatic cell counts remaining at or around 200,000 cells/ml, and there is strong evidence that clinical mastitis has been rising.

"As both a dairy farmer and a DairyCo Board Member I recognised that mastitis was a serious ongoing problem that wasn't really being tackled on farm," says Mr Homer. DairyCo funded the research and development of a plan that is based on a structured, holistic approach to diagnosing the herd situation and preventing new infections, instead of focusing on treating and culling cows that are already infected.

"At Chisbury Lane Farm we had become increasingly frustrated with our mastitis situation," explains Mr Homer. "Whilst we had ever really had a problem with high cell counts, either in individual cows or in the bulk tank, we did have, what was for us, an unacceptably high level of clinical quarter cases per cow."

"We teat dipped, we thought we had a thorough milking routine, we serviced the parlour every six months, in fact we thought we were ticking all the right boxes. But by taking part in the research behind the DairyCo Mastitis Control Plan we unearthed the boxes we didn't even know were involved in mastitis control on farm.

As part of the research leading to the Control Plan Mr Homer and veterinary surgeons Andrew Bradley and James Breen, both from Quality Milk Management Services Ltd., filled out an extensive questionnaire on all aspects of management and husbandry. They collected aseptic milk samples from clinical cases and high cell count cows, made numerous observations relating to environmental management and milking routine in the parlour and collected data on cow-side observations such as body condition scores and teat end scores. 

"The DairyCo Mastitis Control Plan is the result of years of work and investigation into the depth and range of the mastitis challenges facing British dairy farmers," says Dr Bradley. "By gathering such a lot of information about a specific unit it provides individual situation-specific solutions to help tackle the problem rather than a generic approach which may not address the particular issues relevant to the farm.

"From our survey data of 100 UK dairy herds, on average clinical mastitis affects somewhere between 50-70 cows every 100 cow years, with a quarter of herds we selected at random recording rates of 100 cases per 100 cow years. The costs of clinical mastitis can be worked out for individual herds and are often in the range of £150 to £300 per case" continues Dr Breen. "Mastitis, both environmental and contagious, continues to cost the industry millions of pounds each year and have real animal welfare issues."

The DairyCo Mastitis Control Plan has been proven on-farm to cut mastitis by an average of 20%, and much more in many cases. Mr Homer explains the benefits of the in-depth questionnaire, "Somebody detached from the day to day management of the farm, going through all aspects of your mastitis control, cow management and areas you hadn't even thought were important was extremely enlightening and gave a whole new view on where our problems might lie.

"One of the areas James asked us about was our grazing routine and up to that point we hadn't really thought about the contamination possibilities of the pasture. Instead we had concentrated on issues within the cow housing. At the time our high yielding cows were in a paddock nearest to the building so they could walk back inside to feed at anytime. When James asked about the timescale of cows returning to pasture we realised they were repeatedly returning to this pasture after every milking.

"We learnt to think about grass as being not only a feed but also a bedding material, with the same contamination issues as any other," he says. "The questionnaire also highlighted the contamination issue around the cows getting to and from the parlour and around the drinking troughs. We began to see mud for what it really was, a good transmitter of bacteria, and have taken steps to reduce overcrowding at gateways and at water points. "We have changed our grazing policy dramatically since the pilot study; cows now go out to a fresh paddock after every milking, reducing the possibility of contamination. It makes sense from both a grazing utilisation and hygiene point of view," Mr Homer says.

Analysis of the clinical mastitis data and individual cow somatic cell count patterns during the diagnosis section of the control plan highlighted the importance of the dry period in the epidemiology of mastitis at the farm, as many of the clinical cases of mastitis were appearing early on in lactation. So vet and farmer knew they needed to look at both dry cow management and how the cows were calved down.

"After discussions with James we felt that as the cow heads towards calving and her udder bags up she is getting more vulnerable to infection," says Mr Homer. "To minimise stress we keep cows near to calving in straw yards and do not isolate them in calving pens once they start. The Control Plan showed us that we needed to look at the stocking rate at this point. It also suggested that we were leaving calves with their mothers for too long as they were running around suckling off anything and spreading infection between cows. "We now have a transition group yard with a low stocking density, that we make sure is really well bedded and there is plenty of trough space so the cows don't have to push against each other to feed. Calves are also taken off their mothers earlier.

"The control plan encourages us to be very strict about the foremilking of every quarter before milking. It's now an absolutely automatic part of our routine and allows us to pick up potential mastitis cases quicker." Since Mr Homer took part in the pilot study Chisbury Farm has converted from loose housing with some older style cubicles to an all cubicle housing system. All the cubicles now have adequate space for the new larger dairy cow and they all have mattresses for extra comfort.

"We've seen this change as the only way to really crack the mastitis issue on this unit," explains Mr Homer. "There was no denying that our loose yards gave us a real problem with keeping cows clean. What ever you do cows do seem to want to lie in dung. With the cubicles the cow lying area is cleaner, we lime regularly and can sweep the dung away before it becomes a problem. It has made a real difference as our levels of infection are definitely lower.

The results of implementing the DairyCo Mastitis Control are dramatic. Over the period of the project the Chisbury Lane Farm team reduced the quarter cases of mastitis by a third. "Of course we do get a blip from time to time but the trend is definitely down," says Mr Homer. "It's made us realise how many different pieces there are to the mastitis puzzle on our farm. The project helped identify where the problems lay on this unit and helped us concentrate efforts in the areas that gave real results. "The other thing about the control plan is that it changes the relationship you have with your vet. You move away from being fire-fighters, only reacting to the situation, to fire prevention officers, finding the root of the problem and working on preventing cases from developing." Dr Breen agrees and suggests that modern dairy production animal veterinary practice is as much about being a data analyst as it is about treating milk fevers and pregnancy diagnosing cows. "Without sitting down and regularly examining the clinical mastitis data to inspect incidence rates and trends, we would have never known if the hard work at the farm was paying off," he says. "Equally, by looking at the incidence rates of new cases David and his veterinary surgeon will be able to address issues much earlier."

DairyCo is investing £300,000 in the next three years to coach consultants and vets and help get the DairyCo Mastitis Control Plan implemented on many other dairy herds across the UK. For more information call Kate Cross on 01285 646500.