As milk alternatives continue to fill the shelves, it’s important for dairy producers to pay attention to how their product stacks up.
Part of maintaining product demand is understanding how consumers define a high-quality product and what factors play a role in their decision-making process.
In the dairy industry, we often think of milk quality in terms of somatic cell count (SCC). Although a low SCC is an essential attribute, quality milk is not defined by one characteristic alone. Everyone wants a safe, healthy product, but for many consumers, it’s equally as important that the product was produced in a sustainable way.
When it comes to managing mastitis, using antibiotics correctly and minimizing unnecessary use can communicate to consumers that we are doing everything we can to produce a safe, socially conscious product. These four practices can help your operation make strides toward more judicious antibiotic use.
1. Start with animal care
I like to tell producers their best tool against mastitis is a shovel. Keeping manure away from teat ends is just one small thing that can be done to prevent infection and minimize the need for antibiotics.
If healthy cows equate to quality milk, many producers are already on the right track by prioritizing cow comfort. We must be looking at all the factors that play a role in the cow’s overall well-being and do what we can to put cows in the best possible position to navigate health challenges. I recommend focusing on these key aspects of a cow’s experience:
- Ensure adequate stocking density.
- Arrange appropriate water and feedbunk space.
- Provide comfortable and clean bedding.
- Install or maintain proper cooling systems.
- Limit moves from one pen to another.
- Maintain an overall atmosphere of cleanliness.
2. Treat the infection, not the inflammation
Inflammation is often the first sign of mastitis, but it should not determine whether treatment is necessary or dictate the length of treatment. Recognizing the difference between inflammation and infection can help cut back on cost and antibiotic use.
When pathogens are introduced into the udder, the cow’s immune system responds with inflammation by sending in white blood cells (increased SCC) to combat the infection. These white blood cells release a number of chemicals that trigger the signs of inflammation, such as swelling, redness and abnormal milk. The standard practice is to treat until signs of inflammation are gone or until milk appears normal. This is why some five-day treatment regimens have become common; however, this may be leading producers to over-treat with antibiotics.
The initial infection may be resolved in the first 24 to 48 hours (either on its own or due to treatment), but the visible signs of mastitis may take four to six days to disappear (Figure 1).
During this time, the body is eliminating the products of inflammation, such as dead bacteria and somatic cells.
Rather than treating until inflammation subsides, I recommend producers implement an effective two-treatment or three-treatment regimen. This approach can be equally successful as a five-day regimen and will work to cut back on antibiotic use and cost.
3. Consider on-farm culturing
For mild to moderate mastitis cases, culturing helps to identify the right animals to treat, as not all cases require or respond to antibiotics. Instead of giving a broad-spectrum antibiotic and hoping for the best, a culture-based approach enables us to adjust our treatment plan based on which of the three categories the case falls under:
- Gram-positive mastitis cases generally require antibiotic treatment and can become chronic if left untreated.
- Most gram-negative cases, including those caused by E. coli, will self-cure, and antibiotic treatment will not alter the outcome.
- No-growth cases mean no bacteria can be cultured on the plate, indicating that the cow has cleared the infection on her own. Because there are no bacteria, antibiotic treatment is unnecessary.
If a producer were to culture 100 cows, we could generally expect 30% of the cases to be gram-positive, 30% to be gram-negative and another 30% to be no-growth. Following this logic, culturing and only treating gram-positive cases could reduce antibiotic use for mastitis by almost two-thirds.
While the upfront costs of implementing a culturing system may be intimidating, the potential savings from reduced antibiotic treatments likely outweigh those concerns. A study from Penn State Extension found that the cost of treatment and discarded milk associated with clinical mastitis could exceed $350 per cow per year. Not only could the practice of culturing cut costs, it also aligns with the ultimate goal of delivering safe, socially conscious dairy products to the market.
4. Work with your team
It truly takes a village to produce a quality product. The milker, veterinarian, herd manager, nutritionist and farm owner all have a role to play in production and in the journey toward more judicious antibiotic use. Some producers find it helpful to sit down with employees on a quarterly basis. This time can be used to review training, ensure milking procedures are being followed and to identify any opportunities to improve milk quality.
If you’re looking for ways to connect with other producers, consider joining a program or organization within the dairy industry. The National Mastitis Council is one professional organization that’s devoted to reducing mastitis and enhancing milk quality. NMC membership is open to anyone with an interest in udder health and can be a helpful resource for producers.
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