As a dairy farmer, you have the power to save your business a small fortune by preventing mastitis. Here’s how you can remain vigilant as well as efficient.

Dairy farmers are all too familiar with mastitis. You most likely see a number of cases on your farm each year. Mastitis is so common, in fact, that it’s estimated to cost the UK dairy farming industry £170 million per year.

But what exactly is mastitis, and how is it caused? What damage can mastitis do to your business? And how can you contain outbreaks among your herd? Here are a few important things to consider.

What is mastitis?

Mastitis is the name used to refer to any inflammation of the mammary gland (udder). Extreme cases of mastitis can be fatal.

What causes mastitis?

Because mastitis refers to any inflammation of the mammary gland, there is a huge range of possible causes. However, mastitis is most commonly caused by an immune response to bacterial infection. And that’s where things can get complicated.

Just like each city has a unique population of residents, each farm has a unique population of bacterial pathogens. Knowing which bacteria are most active on your farm will go a long way to creating a successful mastitis control plan. Broadly speaking, the transmission of contagious pathogens takes place during milking, while the transmission of environmental pathogens takes place outside of the milking parlour.   

For instance, mastitis is commonly caused by E. coli, which is an environmental pathogen that is found in the faeces left in dirty bedding. Other mastitis-causing pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus are generally contagious pathogens which are passed from cow to cow through, for example, a milking cluster that has not been properly cleaned between use or on the hands of the person milking the herd.

How can mastitis affect a dairy farmer’s income?

There are many costs associated with mastitis. Direct costs include milk yield loss and the cost of treatment. But there’s also the cost of additional labour and, potentially, the cost of culling.

In 2014, the Cattle Health and Welfare Group revealed that the average cost of mastitis in the UK was £225 per cow, per case. With the prevalence of mastitis in the UK placed at 47%, we can therefore assume that mastitis would cost a dairy farmer with a herd of 120 cows around £12,700 per year.

That’s a significant cost. Assuming a milk price of £0.29ppl, it’s the equivalent of losing five cows that milk 8,000 litres per year. But with the right measures, you can work to control mastitis on your farm without adding significantly to your labour demands.

Signs and symptoms of mastitis

Clinical signs of mastitis include clots in the milk, discoloured milk, inflamed udder quarters, and udders that feel firm, swollen and hot to the touch. In extreme cases of mastitis, the milk may turn yellow.

The signs and symptoms that your cow displays – and their severity – will depend on their individual immunological makeup as well as the cause of mastitis. For instance, when mastitis is caused by E.coli, cows can have a large immune response. That can generate some of the classic mastitis symptoms that are easy to detect.

Unfortunately, mastitis can also be subclinical, with no visible symptoms. However, somatic cell count (SCC) will still be raised. (A SCC in excess of 250,000 cells/ml is indicative of mastitis). That’s obviously a big problem. If SCC in the bulk tank is too high, then you will also face penalties on your milk price. It pays – literally – to stay alert to mastitis on your dairy farm.

 Taking action to prevent mastitis

Following the AHDB Dairy Mastitis Control Plan – a set of personalised recommendations based on the nuances of your farm – has been shown to bring incidences of mastitis down by around 36%.

Of course, it goes without saying that dairy farming is labour intensive. The pressures on your time are intense and unrelenting – especially if you have recently trimmed your labour force. Yet taking the time to get mastitis under control on your farm will make it easy to respond quickly to developing outbreaks in the future – before they cause problems.

One way to monitor mastitis prevalence on your farm is to practice pre-stripping. Now, pre-stripping your entire herd twice daily isn’t realistic if you have a large herd. But by focusing on pre-stripping the cows that you know are prone to mastitis, you can use the condition of their udders and foremilk as a barometer for the likely mastitis status of your herd in general. It’s also a great way to detect early any new cases of mastitis.

Of course, all of the regular preventative measures apply too. Maintain a good teat hygiene protocol. Keep a Californian milk test handy in the parlour to make a quick double check of any suspect new cases. Milk out fully and apply iodine to the teat once milking is complete. Prevent cows from lying down on bedding for 30 minutes to allow time for the teat cistern to close. Ensure you have a robust strategy for clearing slurry and keeping bedding clean and comfortable. Finally, maintain the hygiene of your milking equipment and utilise the technology you may have, for example, electric conductivity milk sensors - which are great indicators of elevated SCC.

Treating mastitis

The cause of mastitis can be a complex, multifactorial problem. It really is best to consult a veterinary practitioner if you are having a herd problem. With an understanding of the main pathogens on your farm, they can determine the most effective course of treatment.  

 Over to you…

Mastitis costs dairy farmers around £225 per cow, per case, and it dents the UK dairy farming industry by £170 million per year. Bringing a recurrent mastitis problem under control on your farm is crucial – and inextricably linked to your profits. And while the future of mastitis detection is likely to be aided by Agri-tech, taking simple steps to follow a personalised control plan and monitoring your herd is a sensible investment of your time right now.

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