CellCheck – the story so far

At the end of 2019, Animal Health Ireland (AHI) celebrated its 10th anniversary.

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It was an opportunity to reflect on the progress that has been made over that time, in animal health in Irish cattle herds, both dairy and beef. AHI was established in 2009, as a not-for-profit organisation, tasked with providing the knowledge, education and coordination required to establish effective control programmes for non-regulated diseases of livestock. Its mission is to improve the sustainability, profitability and competitiveness of Irish farming and the agri-food sector though superior animal health. AHI has been, and continues to be, co-funded by industry and government which is a positive reflection of the value placed by the industry on AHI. Over the last decade several national programmes and project areas have developed, and indeed in the last 12 months AHI’s remit had broadened to include the pig sector.

One such programme is CellCheck, which is the national mastitis control programme, which launched in 2010. Development of CellCheck was guided by learnings and resources from Irish research and international mastitis control programmes, particularly Countdown Downunder from Australia (Brightling et al., 2009). CellCheck was established in response to industry concern that bulk tank somatic cell counts (SCC) had been slowly rising since the late 90’s (Berry et al., 2006). It was also recognised that there was little or no coordinated approach to mastitis control at that time, often with inconsistent advice being given to farmers from various sources. In addition, while the impending abolition of quotas, which then came about in 2015, was recognised as an opportunity for Ireland, it was also accepted that it would present challenges for the industry. Ensuring optimal udder health and milk quality was one way that suppliers and processors could maximise profitability, remaining sustainable and competitive in challenging markets and times.

As with the other national programmes co-ordinated and led by AHI, CellCheck is supported by a Technical Working Group (TWG) and an Implementation Group (IG). The TWG is comprised of experts and experienced practitioners from a variety of fields who are tasked with drawing up factual resources, the development of decision-making tools, and the identification of areas for further research and development. By giving of their time free of charge, these experts enable AHI to access the technical resources required to develop its various programmes at a fraction of the true commercial cost of such expertise. The CellCheck Implementation Group plays a key role in the strategic direction and delivery of the CellCheck programme, as well as exploring and addressing the key industry challenges. The IG is composed of representatives from all industry stakeholder bodies. These individuals not only have an intimate working knowledge of their sectors, but also have a clear and strong mandate to articulate positions on behalf of their parent organisations and to engage robustly with the issues under consideration. In conjunction with the TWG, the IG is responsible for the development, implementation and monitoring of the programme.

Significant progress has been made in the udder health of the national herd, since the establishment of CellCheck. One of the most important activities within the CellCheck programme has been to establish a national SCC database. Since 2014, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine (DAFM) has been collecting bulk tank SCC data directly from the milk processors and co-ops. Currently, there are 16 milk purchasers submitting data to this central dataset, which accounts for over 95% of the national milk pool. This dataset has been invaluable in agreeing common industry targets and demonstrating progress in udder health nationally.

There has been a reduction in the national bulk tank somatic cell count (SCC) from 272,000 cells/mL in 2009, to 183,000 cells/mL in 2018 (Fig 1.).

Fig. 1 National annual average bulk tank SCC

In 2013, 39% of herds had an annual average SCC of 200,000 cells/ml or less, while in 2018, this had increased to 62%. Similar improvements were seen in the national milk pool, with the quantity of milk with an SCC<200,000 cells/mL increasing from 46% in 2013 to 65% in 2018 (Fig.2).

Fig. 2 Proportion of herds and milk volume with an SCC of 200,000 cells/mL or less (2013-2018)

Needless to say, standards of udder health are not something that we can become complacent about however, as we can see with the slight rise in bulk tank SCC and the decline in herds and milk volume with an SCC of 200,000 cells/mL or less, between 2017 and 2018. This was undoubtedly influenced by the extreme and unprecedented weather challenges that were encountered in Ireland in 2018. Preliminary analysis of the 2019 data indicates that this ‘hiccup’ has resolved, and udder health performance has returned to 2017 levels.

2019 was the 6th year of the CellCheck “Milking for Quality” awards. These awards are given to the 500 farmers with the best SCC results each year, based on the national SCC dataset. It is an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the excellent udder health performance on so many Irish dairy farms, with an annual national event attended by nearly 700 people! The SCC range of the 500 winners has narrowed year after year since the awards first started. In 2014, all winners had an SCC of 103,000 cells/mL or less, while by 2019 a winning SCC was 76,500 cells/mL or less. The awards are based on the bulk tank SCC data from the previous year, and so it was interesting and inspiring to see that despite the adverse conditions of 2018, the SCC results showed that udder health can still be maintained, through best practice (Fig 3).

Fig. 3 Winners of the CellCheck ‘Milking for Quality’ awards for 6 consecutive years.

This national improvement in udder health has also allowed farmers to increasingly adopt the “prevention is better than cure” approach, with a reduction in the numbers of mastitis treatments being used (More et al., 2017). In the last decade there has been a 34% reduction in the number of mastitis treatments used (per 100 cows) during lactation (Fig 4).

Fig. 4 Intramammary antibiotic used during lactation, 2003-2018

So what does of all this progress mean for Irish farmers? Well the tangible benefit of better mastitis control is more profit. In the early days of the CellCheck programme, Teagasc completed a piece of economic research, which quantified the potential gains to be made from reducing the average SCC of a dairy herd in Ireland (Geary et al., 2013). In partnership with Teagasc we recently completed an additional economic exercise and

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