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Conference focus: Practical mastitis management

Tamara Scully Published on 18 April 2014

This hands-on, fully-functional portable milking parlor was the focus of several workshops at the Penn State Mastitis and Milk Quality Conference

Dairy industry personnel joined with two dozen veterinarians and an equal number of Pennsylvania dairy farmers to learn best practices for managing mastitis and maintaining milk quality.



Featuring four half-day pre-conference workshops whose focus included bulk milk analysis, udder health and milking equipment, the Penn State Mastitis and Milk Quality Conference, hosted by the Penn State Veterinary Extension team, also offered a second full-day conference of speaker presentations.

Presentations focused on the variety of environmental factors, herd health and milking procedures, which can all impact the development and spread of mastitis, as well as practical on-farm techniques to address these risk factors.

Speakers offered take-home lessons from mastitis research, providing dairy farmers with guidance and practical information that readily transferred from the conference room to the dairy barn.

“The overall goal of the conference and workshops was to present practical, novel and ‘cutting-edge’ information to dairy farmers, veterinarians, dairy industry personnel and educators,” said Ernest Hovingh, Penn State Dairy Extension veterinarian and field investigator.

Focus on prevention
Conference speakers included top educators and researchers from Penn State University, Michigan State University, the University of Tennessee, Mississippi State University, Florida A&M University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Universidad de Caldas in Celema, Columbia.


Conference tracks offered specialized pharmacological discussions and monitoring protocols designed for veterinarians, as well as presentations geared toward the farmer.

These topics included: robotic milking and its impacts on mastitis, practical measures to implement on the farm to control mastitis and enhancing communication with workers as a means of increasing the efficacy of mastitis control measures.

Plenary sessions included cow treatment, nutrition management and vaccination information, all geared to help producers identify mastitis cases, eliminate the causes of mastitis, stop its spread and improve herd health and milk quality.

Mastitis doesn’t have one cause. It also doesn’t have one line of prevention.

A variety of factors – from parlor cleanliness, milking techniques and udder care; nutrition management to provide essential immunological responses to viruses and bacteria; appropriate recognition of early symptoms and immediate and consistent implementation of mastitis management protocol; judicious use of appropriate vaccinations or antibiotics; and cow comfort and care outside of the milking parlor – are all important variables with a direct impact on mastitis prevention.

“The most important thing to improve milk quality on dairies is that producers can implement mastitis programs,” said Dr. Michaela Kristula, Penn State Extension field service veterinarian.


Treatment options
Along with having practical knowledge of the causes of mastitis, preventative measures and early detection, dairy farmers need to know what to do when mastitis does occur. Because all mastitis is not the same, smart choices require an understanding of treatment options, a plan for implementing an appropriate treatment protocol and a way to evaluate the results.

Mastitis, an inflammation of the mammary gland, not only impacts herd health, it impacts the quality of milk in the bulk tank. But each farm’s primary mastitis pathogens are not the same, and a one-size-fits-all approach to managing mastitis-causing pathogens does not exist.

In addition, subclinical mastitis requires a different approach than clinical mastitis. With so many variables, treatment needs to be diversified and based on the actual organism causing problems.

While antibiotics can, at times, be an effective tool in treating clinical mastitis cases, some mastitis-causing organisms do not respond to antibiotics at all. Others such as Staphylococcus aureus , which causes subclinical mastitis, “hide” in the muscle tissues, evading detection and treatment.

Gram-negative bacteria have a high rate of self-cure, except in severe cases, while some disease-causing bacteria can be treated effectively with short-term antibiotic treatment.

“Once you know what the pathogens are in the herd, then you need to know how to treat them,” Kristula said.

Contributing factors
Understanding which organisms are causing mastitis and working to find and eliminate the cause of mastitis on any given dairy means looking intensely at udder care. It also means going beyond the teats and into the stalls, exploring the rations, cow comfort and cleanliness, genetics and the environment.

“Our ultimate goal is to prevent infection,” said Dr. Gina Pighetti of the University of Tennessee.

Recognizing when, why and how mastitis happens and spreads on the dairy is crucial. For example, some mastitis is seasonal, Pighetti said, due to heat stress decreasing the cows’ immune response while providing the warm, moist environment in which bacteria thrive.

Other environmental factors include overall sanitation on the farm. Stall size as well as bedding material both impact cow comfort and cleanliness. Stalls not only need to be adequately bedded, they need to be clean and dry, and roomy enough for the cows to lie down in comfort.

Handling bedding of any type to prevent bacterial loads, as well as keeping alley areas dry and free of manure, and keeping cows clean are imperative.

One component which is often overlooked is that of employee compliance to established protocol. Inconsistent milking procedures, failure to follow through with appropriate regimes for prevention or treatment, or inadequate understanding of the reasons behind a protocol are common reasons why mastitis management is ineffective.

When Spanish-speaking employees are involved, communication barriers are pronounced. One conference highlight was a workshop session, given exclusively in Spanish, which offered intensive mastitis management training for Latino employees.

Difficulties communicating with Spanish-speaking employees are more prevalent than dairy farmers seem to think, according to Ruben Martinez, a sociologist with the Quality Milk Alliance.

“They didn’t think there was a communication problem,” Martinez said of non-Spanish-speaking dairy farmers interviewed in a recent study. “But there is almost always an intermediary,” and pointing tends to be a major way of communicating with Spanish-speaking workers.

With a variety of topics covering all aspects of mastitis management on the dairy, the conference offered dairy farmers take-home knowledge that could be readily implemented on farms of all size.

By helping participants better understand the causes of mastitis and the science behind the effectiveness of treatment strategies, the Penn State Mastitis and Milk Quality Conference offered practical answers to one of dairy’s most important issues.

“Not only do these topics have a significant economic impact on a herd’s bottom line, there is also a potential public health concern about the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture,” Hovingh said.

“It was hoped that the information and practical skills learned would help the attendees improve udder health and milk quality in their herds, while also reducing the unnecessary use of antibiotics.” PD

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food systems topics.

This hands-on, fully-functional portable milking parlor was the focus of several workshops at the Penn State Mastitis and Milk Quality Conference. Photo courtesy of Louise Byler/Penn State Extension.