Dairymen have always taken pride in producing a wholesome product for consumers, and with today’s tight margins, producers are taking an even closer look at the management of milk quality, somatic cell counts (SCC), and udder health to recover lost dollars and improve cash flow.
According to the National Mastitis Council (NMC), the incidence of clinical and subclinical mastitis is greatest in most herds during early lactation and is most often caused by opportunistic environmental pathogens. This can be a huge drain on profits.
Researchers also estimate that for each clinical case of mastitis in a dairy herd, there are another 15 to 40 subclinical cases quietly reducing the dairy’s income. Subclinical mastitis contributes to elevated SCC, which hits the milk check in four ways:
1) Lost component value,
2) Quality deductions,
3) Lost bonus opportunities, and
4) Decreased milk production.
Herds that have low SCC are able to consistently ship more pounds of higher value milk, and they have reduced costs associated with mastitis. Studies have shown that cutting a herd’s 300,000 SCC down to 150,000—for example—can produce $10,000 to $14,000 in additional annual cash flow on 70 to 90 milking cows.
In addition to subclinical mastitis robbing the dairy of income opportunities, the cost of each clinical infection – when averaged across all cows in the herd – is estimated at $300 per cow per year due to the costs of treatment, additional labor, discarded milk, and replacements.
Add to this the industry-wide discussion on judicious use of antibiotics, and the incentive becomes clear for dairy producers to measure, identify, and proactively manage SCC levels and udder condition in the dairy herd. The bottom line is to manage the potential for mastitis at critical control points in the dry, prefresh, transition and lactation cycle.
The dry period, for example, is a high-risk time for cows to get environmental infections. Experts estimate between 60 and 75 percent of all new mastitis infections actually begins in the dry period as the cow’s udder comes in contact with opportunistic environmental pathogens that are then “set off” when the cow goes through the stress of calving and transition to show up in early lactation.
Today, more dairy farmers are proactively targeting the udder condition of heifers and cows during transition by managing these quality control points:
1) Provide clean resting and calving areas to reduce udder contact with environmental pathogens,
2) Test milk within the first few days after calving to evaluate individual SCC and to look for trends in the herd,
3) Prevent and relieve udder edema,
4) Provide comfort and soothe udder stress with proactive applications of Udder Comfort.
Dry cow management and clean, dry calving areas are critical to post-partum udder health. It is also important for dairy producers to work with their veterinarians, who have knowledge of the herd’s health history, to develop the management protocols for the farm’s dry cows and prefresh heifers to have a successful transition to lactation. This can include culturing high-SCC cows before dry-off and looking at an animal’s udder health history for past lactations to make decisions about culling and replacement.
It is also important to manage cow and heifer nutrition through the transition period, and to have protocols for udder hygiene as well as consistent milking procedures to quickly, gently and completely remove milk.
One of the most important things a dairy producer can do is to always be looking ahead: To regularly measure individual SCC levels through Dairy Herd Improvement testing, and to check the milk of fresh cows and heifers within the first week after calving using either a paddle-test such as the CMT or a conductivity meter like the Mas-D-Tec. Monitoring the udder condition of cows and heifers in the prefresh and fresh groups is also very important.
“One of the biggest problems we see in the dairy industry, is this problem of not finding and addressing problems soon enough or fast enough,” observes northern Indiana dairy producer and veterinarian Dr. Tom Troxel, DVM. Tom and his wife LuAnn have a 130-cow dairy farm near Hanna, Ind., where Dr. Tom also operates his South County Veterinary Practice.
“We use the California Mastitis Test (CMT) paddle to check fresh cows, before the volume of milk increases (two or three days post-calving), so we can find the subclinical cases and address them early with less wasted milk,” Dr. Troxel reports.
“For gelling that indicates SCC of 400,000 or above, we spray Udder Comfort on those quarters for a week, or until the milk is normal on the CMT,” he explains, noting that the unique blend of essential oils provides “supportive mastitis therapy.”
According to Dr. Troxel – and others in his profession like Dr. Doug Evans of Georgetown, New York – Udder Comfort is a proactive management tool to improve udder condition.
“With this protocol, we see improved fresh cow performance because we are identifying subclinical conditions early,” Dr. Troxel relates. “By being proactive, we can use this tool to increase blood flow to the udder in a general way to reduce the swelling and support the cow’s natural defenses.”
In addition to managing the cow’s environment and setting protocols for dry cow management, the condition of the udder during transition is also important. This is especially true for first-calf heifers as they transition from a non-milking animal into the milking herd.
First-calf heifers represent about one-third of the average dairy herd, so a good first start is important to the dairy’s bottom line. The first-calver must successfully overcome physical and environmental challenges at calving. Strategies that reduce stress will optimize the opportunities for a successful transition into the milking herd.
Udder edema in fresh cows and heifers is one stress factor at calving. It is defined as the accumulation of fluid in the udder. Scientists describe the cause as the inability of the lymph system to keep up with the increase in fluid volume, when hormonal changes prepare the udder for lactation. This, in turn, causes swelling, which can constrict the lymph vessels and decrease production.
Some edema is normal around calving time, but excessive edema makes milking more difficult and can do permanent damage by breaking down udder supports. The intrusion of fibrous connective tissue can also become a problem. Researchers report that the udder beset with edema is more prone to trauma, mastitis, and teat-end injury as it is difficult to properly apply the milking machine to remove normal amounts of milk.
This is why many dairy producers are getting out in front of the problem by paying close attention to the prefresh cows, especially the two-year-olds.
Joe Engel of Luck-E Holsteins, near Hampshire, Illinois, for example, starts every fresh cow and heifer with Udder Comfort. “It does an awesome job of removing the swelling. This step is good for the herd, and it helps us sell more milk and higher quality milk,” he reports.
“We spray the udders after each milking, for the first week after calving to pull out the swelling and keep the udders silky,” explains Joe, who is in partnership with his brother Matt and their parents Dennis and Beth, milking 180 registered Holsteins in a commercial freestall environment and having sold genetics to more than 15 countries.
Minnesota dairyman Todd Hendrickson reports similar benefits. Todd and his wife Sue and daughter Amanda operate Roadside Dairy near Preston. With an SCC of 100 to 120,000, they’ve had the lowest cell count herd in Fillmore County for the past two years.
“Removing the swelling is important so the fresh cows and heifers come into their milk faster,” states Hendrickson. “Our fresh cow mastitis is virtually zero now.”
Large herds are also adopting a proactive approach. For Jake Benson, in partnership with his father Doug at D&J Dairy near Hereford, Texas, quality is important in his day-to-day management of the 5200-cow dairy operation.
“From the ice cream kids eat, to the milk they drink… everything comes back to quality in the dairy industry. We like producing a wholesome product, and we take a lot of pride in our quality,” says Benson about the D&J herd, which maintains SCC of 180,000. “Udder Comfort is a tool to help me manage. We use it in the close-up pen and on fresh cows to get the edema off as quickly as possible, so they are easier to milk and to milk out completely.”
The close-up animals are in the headlocks once a day, so any cow or heifer showing edema gets the udder sprayed once a day until calving. This typically begins three weeks before calving, and in some cases, continues for a couple days after calving.
“The employees do this willingly because they see the benefits and they like the ease of milking fresh cows,” adds Benson.
This proactive approach is something New York dairy veterinarian Dr. Doug Evans, has been doing at the home farm for a long time. Doug and his wife Kathe own and operate Sunny Acres Ayrshires with their children. The farm is also home-base for Doug’s bovine veterinary practice.
“We love this protocol for pre-calving and post-calving edema, especially on the heifers,” Dr. Evans reports. “We coat the udders of the prefresh heifers as soon as they start to fill in, about one to two weeks before calving. We just spray the Udder Comfort on twice a day when we bring them in for feeding.”
Having a noninvasive management tool has been a “tremendous help” for dairy manager Arturo Quiroz. “We spray the udder of any cow that has high SCC here. It helps me manage the herd and our costs,” reports Quiroz, who has managed the 4000-cow herd at Heritage Dairy, Clovis, New Mexico, for 13 years. He loves everything about his job. “I always like to be learning because I want to be the best at what I do,” he explains.
At Heritage Dairy, the employees routinely check cows to identify SCC levels. Within the first three months of using this proactive approach, the herd’s average counts dropped from 230,000 to 170,000, with only 14 cows in the hospital pen out of 4000 head milking.
In Potter County, Pennsylvania, similar results were achieved when Tricia Adams decided to purchase a case of Udder Comfort and a Mas-D-Tec hand-held conductivity meter to identify and target the cows with high counts.
“We are really pleased with the results. Within two months, we got our SCC average down to 240,000,” says Adams. She and her brothers Keith, Brad and Josh Hoffman and their parents Dale and Carol operate Kar-Dale-Acres, home to 700 milk cows.
“I check the whole herd every month, to find the problem cows and to follow them and make decisions,” she reports. “We are now getting our first bonus for having counts under 300,000. But the biggest thing is we are producing better quality milk.”
When it comes to udder condition and milk quality, there is no single silver bullet. Future success in the ongoing battle against mastitis comes from a fresh focus on good management practices, consistent protocols, routine evaluation and proactive approaches that target the prefresh and fresh period for a good start to a healthy and productive lactation.
About the author: Sherry Bunting is a free-lance writer in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, covering milk quality management and other national dairy industry topics for more than 25 years. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.
For more information, contact Udder Comfort toll-free at 888-773-7153 or visit uddercomfort.com.