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Give heifers freedom from mastitis

Dairy Calf & Heifer Association Published on 25 August 2011
Clean heifers are an integral part of mastitis prevention at Five Star Dairy (a DCHA sustaining member), Elk Mound, Wisconsin. The dairy keeps heifers clean and dry by using a bedded-pack housing system prior to calving. This arrangement helps prevent bacteria in the environment from colonizing heifer teat ends and entering the teat orifice.

This attention to cleanliness, rather than pre-treating heifers, is the preferred method for controlling mastitis in heifers at the dairy, and it has proven successful.

“We CMT (California Mastitis Test) all heifers when they’re fresh (at the third milking) to see if they are subclinical,” says co-owner and veterinarian Jean Amundson. “It’s not very common that we’ll have a heifer that’s subclinical.”



Although subclinical infection in fresh heifers is a rare occurrence at Five Star Dairy, others may not be so lucky.

Fortunately, there are several effective therapeutic practices and control measures to help heifers calve clean.

Mastitis treatment options
The Gold Standards II, a series of heifer production and performance guidelines established by DCHA, outline target treatment rates for disease conditions, such as mastitis. (For more on DCHA’s Gold Standards, visit )

According to the guidelines, treatment rates for non-respiratory conditions and diseases, including mastitis, should not exceed 4 percent for Holstein heifers six to 12 months old and 2 percent for heifers 12 months old to freshening.

Fortunately, heifers possess some inherent qualities that make them less susceptible to mastitis than cows, Ruegg says. They also tend to eliminate infections faster.


However, there are some situations when treatment is simply unavoidable.

One of the most effective strategies for treating infected heifers is intramammary antibiotic therapy.

This is part of the treatment protocol at Gardner Heifers Inc., Huddleston, Virginia.

Heifers that develop mastitis in a quarter before calving receive systemic antibiotic treatment and are milked out, explains DCHA member Don Gardner, veterinarian and custom grower. This is followed by several days of treatment with intramammary antibiotics.

“Research has shown that administration of intramammary antimicrobial treatments during late gestation is generally highly effective and cure rates for Staphylococcal infections frequently exceed 90 percent,” Ruegg said during a heifer mastitis presentation at the 2011 Dairy Calf and Heifer Conference in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

Keep in mind, however, that intramammary treatment may represent an extra-label drug use, so only use this approach under the supervision of your herd veterinarian and within the context of a valid veterinarian/client/patient relationship. Likewise, always follow milk-withdrawal and meat-withdrawal times found on the product label.


Keep teat ends clean
Keeping teat ends free of bacteria should be at the core of any heifer mastitis prevention program.

“When we talk about controlling mastitis in heifers, when we talk about limiting the development of mastitis in baby calves, when we talk about preventive strategies, what we really want to do is reduce bacterial colonization of the teat ends,” Ruegg says. “Mastitis is caused by a bacteria, and what we need to do is keep the teats free of bacteria.”

Here are some effective ways to reduce exposure and keep bacteria off teat ends and out of the udder:

• Keep bedding and heifer housing areas clean and dry
• Use fly-control practices to minimize biting flies that colonize teat ends
• Do not allow heifers to cross-suckle

Heifers that nurse each other at Gardner Heifers in Virginia almost always originate from the same farm, Gardner says. Not surprisingly, these heifers almost always have consecutively numbered ear tags.

“That tells me that they were probably crowded and raised in the same pen because they were born about the same time,” Gardner says. “Raising two in a pen is a big risk factor for heifers nursing one another.”

Pre-calving teat disinfection with a dip or spray is another tool that can be used to reduce exposure of teat ends to bacteria.

A study from New Zealand found that a teat spray applied three times a week on heifers was effective in reducing the number of Strep. uberis infections in heifers post-calving.

“By teat spraying, all you are doing is reducing colonization of the teat end with bacteria,” Ruegg says.

The use of internal teat sealants before calving also can help prevent entry of bacteria into the teat, particularly in herds that have a demonstrated mastitis problem. This also is a useful strategy for purchased heifers or heifers returning from a commingled facility.

“The best preventative strategy is to reduce exposure (to bacteria) by providing excellent, clean housing,” Ruegg says. “If you have a situation where that’s difficult to do, then you might want to go with teat dips and sealants as additional steps.” PD

The Dairy Calf and Heifer Association is dedicated to serving the dairy calf and heifer industry. DCHA strives to provide information, education and access to leading research and technology to help its members be more profitable. DCHA members have the opportunity to network with producers, industry leaders and top academia to learn more about current issues affecting the dairy calf and heifer business. For more information about DCHA and the Gold Standards, visit or call 877-HEIFERS .