Happy cows have healthy teats. Keeping your herd’s udder health in tip-top shape, however, is proving to be more challenging. If your cows are experiencing dry and cracked teats, you can guarantee two things are happening:

  • Bacteria and mastitis increase. Dry and cracked teat skin provides ideal conditions for unruly bacteria to hide. The number one cause for new cases of mastitis (clinical and subclinical) is an increase in the number of bacteria on the teat.

    Invisible to the naked eye, subclinical mastitis will drive up your bulk tank somatic cell count. Although it can be easily identified with individual cell count data, it’s impossible to spot the infected quarters before they hit the tank.

  • Your cows are in pain. Horizontal skin cracks are very painful. During milking, that pain will interfere with oxytocin letdown and negatively affect the entire milk ejection process. Poor milk letdown can then lead to incomplete milking of each cow’s quarters, resulting in increased risk for new mastitis cases.

Although there are a wide variety of influencers impacting teat health, here are the top five culprits and how to prevent them from impacting your bottom line.

1. Weather variations

It would be reckless to blame all teat challenges on Mother Nature, but how well we protect our cows from weather variations definitely makes a difference. Although we do our best to keep cows comfortable, it’s increasingly difficult to ensure facility designs meet regional challenges.

For example, dairy herds that happily resided in open corrals during drought spells are now having a tough time adjusting to normal rainfall. The take-home message is: Identifying maintenance protocols during tough weather is critical to maintaining cow comfort and reducing mastitis risk.

2. NPE-free iodine teat dips

Although it’s been three years since the first U.S. dairy processors told producers to get nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) off dairy farms, the U.S. remains a scattered patchwork of processors that have yet to standardize NPE-free among dairy herds. According to our chemists, the greatest challenges with the new NPE-free formulations are:


o The new surfactants may hold onto the iodine molecules too tightly. When this happens, the free iodine level could get so low the killing power might be compromised, and mastitis could increase.

o The new surfactant may not hold onto the iodine molecules as consistently as did the NPE carrier. If this happens, the free iodine levels could get high enough to overwhelm the skin-moisturizing package in the dip formulation, leading to teat skin irritation.

In general, the NPE-free iodine reformulations have struggled to provide similar teat skin condition scores as their NPE-based cousins. Bottom line, using NPE-free iodines requires an intense commitment to monitoring teat skin condition for your herd.

3. Alternative bedding materials

The industry’s increasing use of alternative bedding materials – such as recycled sand and recycled manure instead of the gold standard of dry, virgin sand – has created interesting milk quality challenges. The hallmark challenge of alternative beddings is: They are generally wetter than new sand.

Cows experiencing wet material against their udders for hours each day will experience more dry skin issues, similar to a runner in sweaty shorts.

The best method to combat overly saturated recycled sand is to allow proper drying time over a three- to four-month window. Adding lime to bedding materials and on mattresses can be a fast fix to reduce moisture and bacteria levels but will also increase the risk of dry skin issues.

In cross-ventilated barns, where humidity levels can already be challenging, especially in the cooler months, the use of wet alternative bedding will only add to the problem. Dryer is better when it comes to any bedding material choice.

4. ‘Free-chlorine-releasing’ germicides

As we look for opportunities to reduce costs, dairy farmers increasingly choose to craft their own “homemade teat dip,” using everything from household bleach to chlorine generators. These free-chlorine-releasing germicides can kill a lot of bacteria on clean surfaces.

However, their Achilles’ heel is: They react quickly with everything they contact. This includes not only organic material but also the detergents or skin-moisturizing ingredients added to the teat dip in an attempt to make it gentler on teat skin.

Straight chlorine on teat skin, even when used only as a pre-dip for 30 seconds two or three times per day, has repeatedly shown to increase dryness issues. The take-home message is: Do-it-yourself works excellently when re-tiling a bathroom, but udder care products should be left up to the chemists.

5. Lower skin-moisturizing teat dip packages

Because skin-moisturizing ingredients are, hands-down, the most expensive part of dip formulations, more dairy farmers have been reducing the skin moisturizers used on-farm. In the past, limited udder care options led many producers to use the same teat dip, pre- and post-, year-round. Today, we commonly see producers using a quick-killing germicide with detergents as their pre-dip to clean teats.

Keep in mind: The main goal of pre-dips is to help reduce the risk of new environmental mastitis cases. Although we do need some level of moisturizer to keep the teats happy, most pre-dips still work well with a lower moisturizing factor.

The post-dip is where the rubber really meets the road. Your post-dip solutions are critical to reducing the risk of new contagious mastitis cases and are responsible for maintaining or improving skin condition. Although it is tempting to save money using lower-percentage skin-moisturizing post-dips, leaving teats exposed, dry and irritated will only lead to escalated mastitis risk and potentially higher costs.

If you’re going to play the odds when it comes to teat moisturizing levels, paying strict attention to teat skin scoring is your best option to prevent dry teat skin challenges in your herd. That said, it is much easier and more cost-effective to prevent teat skin issues rather than fix them.  end mark

Roger S. Thomson, DVM, is a milk quality consultant and founder of MQ-IQ Consulting LLC. Holly Sutcliffe is with ABS North America sales support.