Dr. Michael Farre, SEGES, Denmark

Dr Michael Farre is the senior specialist veterinarian at SEGES Livestock Innovation, the national advisory centre in Denmark, which is responsible for research projects in milk quality and udder health, as well as dairy extension work. He holds a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural College, Copenhagen (2005) and MBA in economics (2014). M² magazine asked him about his work.

What are the two most important research projects in your portfolio?
“The first project is ‘Better Milk quality’ with a focus on Strep. agalactiae, which has a 6 per cent prevalence in Danish herds. This may seem a little strange, as infections should be easy to control with the appropriate antibiotics. However, it appears that we work predominantly with human strains, which contrasts to other countries where the bovine strains are more common. In some herds, Strep. infections create problems with Bactoscan counts and increase the consumption of antibiotics. In other herds, it is almost asymptomatic and rarely has a negative economic impact. In Denmark, about 25 per cent of the cows are milked by automatic milking systems (AMS) and this also affects the spread, with a higher prevalence of Strep. agalactiae on farms with AMS systems compared to other farms.”

An external cluster wash during milking.

“The objective of the project is to determine the prevalence of positive cows in infected herds and the route of transmission by applying pulse-field gel electrophoresis and genomic sequencing techniques.”

“The herds were selected from the Danish Cattle database and re-tested by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to confirm the samples as positive for Strep. agalactiae. We sampled eight herds, taking samples from vaginal and rectal swabs and milk samples. We are analyzing the data and preparing to publish the results and we have found interesting patterns of spread and dynamics in the herds.”

“The project is in cooperation with Department of Biomedicine, Aalborg University and HERD, the Centre for Herd-oriented Education, Research and Development at Copenhagen University. It is a €130,000 project funded by the levy fund.”

“The second project (a pilot project in 35 herds) focuses on on-farm culture. It involves the farm veterinarian and evaluates the diagnoses with Maldi-TOF mass spectrometry at the Danish Veterinary Institute. The aim is to reduce the number of treatments, which at the moment are 0.3 cases per cow on average. Currently, we have very limited access to fast, reliable and affordable diagnostic techniques, and we are trying to find alternative ways for the farmer to improve his decision-making.”

“We had an initial planning meeting with experts from Denmark and Andrew Biggs, a veterinarian from Devon, England who is the UK representative on the European Mastitis Panel. Biggs provided updates on diagnostics and their experiences on running a commercial lab, including, for example, handling special agars.”

Figure 1. The distribution of pathogens identified in 492 samples

“The criterion for participating was – were the farmers and veterinarians interested as volunteers? – there was no other requirement. The farmers cultured their acute clinical cases under the supervision of the farm veterinarian and sent the agar plate to the Veterinary Institute for identification with Maldi-TOF.”

“In total, 492 plates were received for Maldi-TOF, and the distribution of the pathogens identified are shown in Figure 1. (Of the plates sent for confirmation, 14 per cent contained sterile plates).”

“The pilot project illustrated that there was huge variation between farms regarding culturing success; some achieve excellent results. And we found that sending plates to the laboratory for verification with Maldi-TOF can be a challenge.”

“The work is a €130,000 project funded by the levy fund in co-operation with local veterinarians and the Veterinary Institute.”

What does your work with milk processors involve?

“My work with milk processors (mainly Arla co-op) is related in the main to antibiotics and residues with a focus on udder health. The major milk processors have zero tolerance with regards to residues of any kind. The industry has a challenge on this issue and analytical equipment is improving all the time. The use of antibiotics is of great interest; as an industry we have voluntarily ceased the use of 3rd and 4th generation cephalosporins, and enroflocaxin has been banned for years. Overall, we have had a 12 per cent reduction in the consumption of antibiotics in dairy cows in 2017 and we are on tenterhooks to see if the trend continues.”

An alternative use in the parlour for the supermarket trolley.

“The projects I am involved with are farmers’ ‘field schools’ where farmers visit a farm in the group and go through routines and management to pinpoint areas for improvement. The strength is the farmer-to-farmer interaction, which can offer advantages over the traditional consultant-to-farmer interaction.”

“In another project, we point farmers in the right direction and the focus is on:

The use of gloves during milking and keeping them clean;
The use of clean pre-dip and post-dip cups;
The use of cotton cloths for drying teats, one corner for each;
Milk cooling, which can be an issue in Denmark.”

“I visit farms as necessary, for example, where there are on-going problems on the farm or where the local veterinarian wants a second opinion.”

“On average, dairy farms in Denmark have 194 cows, mainly housed in free stalls (cubicles) year round; although cows in organic systems graze outdoors during the summer. At the moment, about 25 per cent of the cows are milked with robots, but the number of farms with robots is declining due to the cost of maintenance and the cost of power and water utilities. The typical farm worker is from Eastern Europe on a one-year contract. Labour costs are high, which means we need high efficiency. The breeds are predominantly Holstein with smaller numbers of Danish Red and Jersey. Jerseys are becoming more popular because they fit better into the existing 15 year-old stalls, which are too small for modern Holstein cows.”

Robot farms
“Consulting on farms with robots is challenging, especially on the farms where the robots are retro-fitted into existing buildings because grouping the cows can be difficult. It should be easy to standardize basic things like teat cleaning before milking and the application of spray after milking, but I have found these operations need a lot of daily monitoring and attention. This attention is not always provided by farmers who, having made the change from parlor milking, expect the robots to work with no supervision.”

Farm staff milking in a large herringbone parlour.

“On the parlor side, I do a lot of consulting based on monitoring parlor data collected through the milk meters. On some farms I do continuous monitoring and have an agreement to intervene if some critical control points come out of range. I then call the farmer and often make a farm visit. The farmers have basically outsourced the udder health monitoring to myself as an external consultant.”

“The data is processed using software like DC305, which is a great tool to monitor milking and parlor management in general. The downside of the parlor system can be working with unskilled labour that sometimes comes from abroad, making language a barrier. But working to create a team spirit is the main objective and always involves the owner, the veterinarian and the milking technicians. Everybody takes responsibility and has specific tasks for improving udder health.”

You do work on large farms – how do you find them?
“My work on large farms, particularly in Eastern Europe, can be with up to 3,300 cows. The main objective on large farms is to improve overall efficiency in udder health and milk quality, reduce the number of clinical mastitis cases treated, and to reduce the overall consumption of antibiotics.”

“My approach has been to understand cow-flow, infection dynamics, implementing Standard Operating Procedures and involving people.”

“On large farms, the main challenge is that cows are often taken care of by people who have little initial knowledge of cows (and staff turnover can be high, and language and culture may be different). The issues can be handled by involving people in solving problems and by following up to ensure plans for improvement are implemented.”

A modern rotary parlour.

“I start with data analysis and a visit where I follow milking with teat-scoring and cow handling, and try to get an idea about the routines through being part of the milking. It’s always essential to get “boots on the ground” information from the technicians who work on the farm. The larger herds are very complex and talking to people at different operational levels usually gives the full picture of the problem.”

“My first priority is to provide realistic expectations. I can help them with identifying the problems, creating a plan for implementation, monitoring and follow up, but I cannot be at the farm 24/7 and they have to be ready to take responsibility on the labour management, even though it’s an issue many dairy farmers find difficult to handle.”

“We aim for as much involvement from the employer as possible and apply methods such as LEAN (which is used successfully in pig farming) to make continuous improvements and make the processes more efficient and simpler.”

How is your work on monitoring the use of antibiotics progressing?
“In Denmark, we can monitor the consumption of antibiotics at farm level because all cattle medicines are distributed through pharmacies and veterinarians who must report the product name, quantity and what it is prescribed for at farm level. That information goes to the national database, VETSTAT, the Danish system for surveillance of the veterinary use of drugs for production animals. Thus, we have a detailed picture of the consumption and application of different products on each farm.”

“Information is made available to farmers through regional meetings, the annual dairy farm conference and social media.
We stress three simple bullet points:

  • Up-to-date milking routines and overall hygiene;
  • Diagnosis before treatment of clinical mastitis;
  • Increased dry cow therapy (DCT).”

“Monitoring results for Q1 and Q2 in 2017 show a reduction in the consumption of antibiotics of approximately 12 per cent of the overall consumption.”

“In contrast to some other countries, we have promoted DCT, but as a selective therapy. In Denmark, it is compulsory to collect milk samples from the cow before dry-off and it’s a requirement to have a positive culture or a cycle threshold (Ct) value below 37 to permit drying off the cow with an antibiotic preparation.”

“The attitude persists that DCT therapy increases the overall consumption of antibiotics. We have made great efforts in promoting DCT, but only to apply treatments where tests have confirmed the presence of pathogens.”

Deep sand bedding in a free-stall barn.

How is your work on the surveillance of Strep. agalactiae going?
“The surveillance program is mandatory and bulk tank milk samples are collected by the processor picking up the milk. I know it sounds a little strange with such a program, but we have problems with human strains of Strep. agalactiae that are difficult to control. And the fact that 25 per cent of Danish cows are milked by robots doesn’t help.”

“The objective is to identify infected herds and to register them in the national animal recording system. There is no compulsory eradication program, although this may be introduced in the future. At the moment the prevalence is six per cent, which can vary from year to year, and we have a bi-annual programme of sampling and testing with PCR.”

“Monitoring has been in place continuously since 1962, introduced because of the zoonotic aspects. The prevalence, in some years, has been close to zero. However, in 2005 the ban on moving animals from infected herds was lifted. Then the prevalence increased until 2016 and has since fallen somewhat.”

You are involved with the STOPMAST project. What is your progress so far?

“The objectives of STOPMAST are:

  • To develop tools to identify sources of infection and to gain knowledge about their importance;
  • To measure the spread of contagious mastitis bacteria in Danish herds with particular emphasis on Staph. aureus and Group B streptococci;
  • To identify effective management strategies to reduce infection by using randomized trials in four herds with control groups
  • To investigate the relationship between cow properties, infection status and inflammation markers;
  • To develop a decision support tool to determine optimal prevention and treatment strategies for the individual farm and its staff, and to make choices about the economically optimal decision for the individual cow.”

“STOPMAST has four multi-disciplinary groups or Work packages (AP1, 2, 3 & 4). I am responsible for Work package 4, and the documentation and dissemination of the information to farmers and advisers.”

“Initially, data from the annual tank milk samples are examined to identify herds suitable for AP1 (the methods used for detecting and quantifying infectious mastitis bacteria) and AP2 (the assessment of how infection is spread and how spread can be reduced). During the trial periods in AP1 and 2, results are documented and disseminated to farmers and advisers.”

“At the end of the herd trial, an advisory report is prepared for the trial hosts, describing the herd status, the effect of management changes and suggestions for, and the likely cost of further improvements.”

“Results from AP1, 2 and 3 (the development of decision support tools) are communicated as they come available to advisers, veterinarians and farmers at meetings and in press articles. Results from AP1, 2 and 3 provide recommendations for systematic mapping of infectious sources and control strategies that are specific to each farm and its staff.”

“The practical applicability of the recommendations is evaluated in selected focus groups with farmers and advisors. New information is presented to farmers and advisors at theme days.”

“The number of farms involved is 12 at the moment with a massive collection of samples from the milk, the environment and cows’ teat skin. The project is ongoing and there is, as yet, limited availability of results; however, we can see that milking cows with a robot requires a huge focus on maintenance and hygiene because of the substantial risk of cross-contamination during milking. The procedures for cleaning have also to be re-evaluated, as we note that some routines applied at cleaning actually increase the bacteria load on surfaces exposed to the teats at milking.”

“STOPMAST is in cooperation with AAU Foulum, HERD, the Danish Veterinary Institute and SEGES Livestock Innovation is a €1.6 million project funded by the Milk Levy fund.”

The Danish dairy industry at a glance

Number of dairy farmers – 2,960
 Number of dairy cows per farm – 194
 Energy corrected milk per cow per year: all breeds 10,050 kg; Holstein breed 10,870 kg
 Average butterfat content – 4.3%
 Average protein content – 3.53%
 Average somatic cell count – 203,363 as a geometric mean