7 June 2002


Are you fed up with cattle calving down with mastitis and having to discard milk?

Richard Allison finds out how the Framlingham Dairy group is tackling this problem

USING sand instead of straw in calving pens and improving cow cleanliness are just two of the strategies found to be effective against mastitis by a group of Suffolk producers.

Wetter winters and increasing labour pressures have led to a surge in mastitis cases on most dairy units, says Kite Consultings Norfolk-based consultant Tanya Colman. "It has left many herds struggling to control high cell counts and having excess numbers of animals undergoing treatment."

Practical solutions

This prompted the Suffolk-based Framlingham Dairy Group to take advantage of the MDC £1000 for 1000 cows initiative and arrange a technical mastitis meeting last December. "The aim was to improve members understanding of mastitis and discuss practical solutions," says Mrs Colman.

"An action plan was produced, incorporating top tips from local dairy vet Steve Youngs. The meeting encouraged members to go away and try something different on their unit."

The first task was to identify the main organisms causing mastitis. With this knowledge, the problem can be tackled head on by focussing on the cause.

"Milk tests on member farms revealed that the main organism responsible was Strep uberis, indicating that bedding and straw were main source of infection."

These microbes survive and multiply outside the cows body in fresh faeces, slurry, bedding and water. Cows then become contaminated between milkings and infection then enters cows via teat soiling, explains Mrs Colman.

"This is why parlour routine is critical in avoiding spread. When cows are entering the parlour with dirty teats and increasing teat preparation time, try fencing off dirty gateways or using more bedding." She believes cows in straw yards require about 18kg/day, while cows in cubicle housing only need half that amount.

Environmental mastitis is normally a greater problem in straw yard housing. But more than half of producers in the group have cubicle housing and experienced similar mastitis problems last winter, she says.

The next stage in tackling mastitis was to identify weak areas on the unit by examining mastitis records. For one member, Nick Tibbenham, the weak area in his 140-cow herd was cows and heifers either calving with mastitis or going down in the first week of lactation.

Infection entry

But affected animals dont show any signs of swelling or clots before calving or suffer mastitis during the dry period. He believes the problem occurs at calving with infection gaining entry as teat ends start to open up with milk dripping.

Armed with a thermometer, Mr Tibbenham undertook a closer inspection of the calving pen to measure temperature of straw bedding. It revealed that the hottest areas, ideal for microbes to grow, were in the pens middle, which was used most and bedding was most compacted.

Following the meeting, straw was replaced with sand, as an experiment, with the remaining group of 25 cows still to calve. Sand remained cold and there was a noticeable reduction in mastitis cases during the first week of lactation.

But sand in loose yards is difficult to manage with dung having to be removed each day and Mr Tibbenham is concerned that his drains will become blocked with prolonged use. "In addition, the area became smelly after a couple of weeks, despite a dry, clean surface.

High recurrences

Another problem highlighted by his mastitis records was a high number of recurrences, tending to involve cows which suffered mastitis at calving. To solve this, parlour cleaning routine was changed and a barrier teat dip used on cows with damaged teats and those being treated for mastitis, he says.

At a follow up meeting, other group members also reported successes in controlling mastitis and reducing somatic cell counts, says Mrs Colman.

One member, John Matthews of Kerr Farms, found trimming tails more thoroughly and separating infected cows from the herd led to a reduction in somatic cell count from 300,000 cells/ml to 150,000 cells/ml. Separating cows also makes treatment easier.

On another members unit, culling persistently infected animals, adjusting automatic scrapers and replacing cubicle beds reduced cell counts by 60% to 100,000 cells/ml. In addition, mastitis cases are now a quarter the previous rate with less than one case/week in 120 cows.

"This involved reprogramming automatic scrapers to clean passages twice as often, eight times daily and timed to ensure passageways are cleanest when cows were most active," explains Mrs Colman.

Another factor in tackling mastitis is stocking density. Mrs Colman believes some producers may have been tempted by lower milk prices to add an extra 2-3 cows in yards. In addition, stocking densities should be adjusted for milk yield, as high yielding cows are equivalent to 1.5 lower yielding animals.

The recommended rate is 6.5sq m bedded area a cow with an additional 2.2sq m for loafing. In cubicle housing, the number of cubicle places should be 10% greater than the number of animals, she adds. &#42

The first week of lactation is a critical period for preventing mastitis, as teats start to open up, believe Nick Tibbenham and Tanya Colman.

&#8226 Trim tails thoroughly.

&#8226 Identify organism.

&#8226 Early detection and treatment.

&#8226 Separate infected animals.

&#8226 Cull chronic cases.