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Mastitis – Is this really an everyday hassle?

Robert Drysdale Published on 18 April 2014

Implementing a whole-farm approach to mastitis can impact farm profitability. A partnership between farmer and veterinarian managing udder health, based around protocols and education, can see a milk-quality program develop to minimize losses through mastitis. That can be worth several dollars per cow per year.

Every dairy farmer recognizes mastitis as a cost, but in reality, do you have targets for udder health on your farm? Do you know what a case of mastitis costs you? As a producer, your answer may vary, but consider the following factors before you get to your final total:



• Dumped milk while under treatment protocol

• Subsequent lost yield

• Culling – udder health is often in the top three reasons for culling on any dairy farm.

• Medicines – for treatment and prevention

• Time for staff in dealing with treatments, etc.


Add a recurrence rate, often 60 percent, and subsequent costs compound when a case repeats.

At the recent National Mastitis Council meeting in San Diego, California, a computer-based statistical model for mastitis on a farm was presented. The researcher concluded that transmission between cows was, in reality, the single biggest cost in any one new case.

Spread between cows has always been known to be a problem, but attributing 35 percent of any case cost to spread to other cows suggests this could be more significant than previously thought.

In the 1960s, the Five-Point Plan was developed by researchers to manage mastitis on dairy farms in the United Kingdom.

In 1971, the average UK bulk tank milk somatic cell count (BMSCC) was 600,000 cells per ml, with an average of 150 cases of mastitis per 100 cows per year. At the time the majority of mastitis was due to contagious bacteria – often Staph aureus and Strep agalactiae spread in the milking parlour.

Implementation of the plan, hard work and advances in management saw the UK average drop to nearer 150,000 with 50 cases of mastitis per 100 cows by 1996. This improvement was driven in part by European Union directive 92/46, where the maximum BMSCC for sellable milk was set at 400,000 cells per ml.


Since 1997, milk quality appears to have slipped, with BMSCC average rising slowly to a level of 199,000 cells per ml by 2012. This has been driven largely by additional quality payments introduced by processors where BMSCC less than 200,000 is the target.

At the same time though, mastitis rate appears to have lifted to 70 cases per 100 cows per year – mostly through an increase in environmental mastitis.

Changing this plan to match dairy farming 50 years later is needed. Developing a milk-quality program with your veterinarian to take into consideration changes to cow management, cow genetics and yields, bacterial challenges, environment and working practices is needed if the modern dairy farm is to minimize disease and maximize returns.

The NMC has a “10-Point Plan” with additional environmental and milking parlour controls to reflect the modern dairy farm.

Between farms, mastitis can vary greatly. What works for one may not on the next-door operation – differences in bacteria, nutrition, management, genetics and even parlour are among some of the reasons for such variation. From cause to approach for control or treatment, managing mastitis is not a set of simple black-and-white rules.

Mastitis should be considered a herd problem, and when milk price against cost of production leaves little margin, any litres lost is a problem. The UK average is 70 cases of mastitis per 100 cows per year.

This is, however, only an average; many farms have single-figure case rates while the worst are more than 100 cases per 100 cows per year. Losses also vary between the types of mastitis: clinical to subclinical, toxic e. coli to mild Strep uberis.

There are still two main types of mastitis: environmental and contagious. But maybe a new way to improve udder health is to look at overall case rate and targeting the causative bacteria. This will also help in managing new, emerging issues such as Klebsiella pneumonia, where management practices are leading to more exposure and risks.

Take a HACCP approach to milk quality with mitigation and minimization the two key points to consider. Even with the best program in place and with a high level of education and understanding of farm staff, mastitis will still happen. The plan should be to reduce the exposure risk to the cow while ensuring she is best prepared for any exposure that may happen.

Taking the targeted approach toward milk quality will pay dividends. This strategic process works around HACCP and, if a cost benefit is to be seen, your farm will need a plan that can be set and followed over a period of time with reviews:

1. Create a milk-quality team for the farm – to include all staff and consultants involved in milk production on your farm. This should have the veterinarian as the coordinator for ensuring regular meetings with a team approach.

2. Set targets for udder health – decided within the milk-quality team and managed through review meetings with data reporting forming a key part of this plan. Start with clinical case rate and monitor from a set date with reviews at regular intervals to monitor progress.

3. Education of staff – the milking team needs to understand protocols and reasons for changes to management practices, milking process, etc. Instigate routine training meetings and reviews for all staff involved in any area of udder health.

4. Antibiotic therapy review – produce a protocol for treatment regimes and manage use of antibiotics responsibly.

5. Target prevention – implement processes and control points for high-risk areas:

Dry cow – strategic use of antibiotic therapy for problem cases; consider teat sealants; avoid new infections during the dry-off process; manage the environment and exposure risks.

Fresh cow udder health – environmental impacts. Transition protocols for best results in pre-calving and fresh cows plus protect heifers.

Parlour management – of the milking equipment and plant

Vaccination – identify risks and consider vaccination strategy

6 . Use milk SCC records (DHI) – for control and prevention:

Identify apparent new cases

Intervene – check with the California Mastitis Test (CMT) and treat if required or identify for future management.

Isolate – even within the herd by added pre-hygiene, post-hygiene and prep of these cows.

7. Vaccination program – with modern vaccines, control of several families of bacteria are possible at one time. Staph aureus, CNS and gram-negative through J5 can be achieved pre-calving. With strategic use of vaccination, ongoing protection can be offered at herd level against both contagious and environmental mastitis.

Mastitis and udder health have a direct impact on farm profits – as milk is really the only product sold by a dairy farm on a daily basis. Using a milk-quality program with a targeted team approach to improving and managing the udder health on your farm will pay dividends in the short, medium and long term.

Taking this strategic approach using an arsenal of control measures including education of staff, environmental management and vaccine use with the vet at the centre of any plan would be a good place to start. PD

Robert Drysdale is a veterinarian with Westpoint Vet Group, the United Kingdom’s largest farm vet practice.