Interview with Norman Beggs of Udder Health Solutions

Norman Beggs is a veterinary surgeon based in County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. M²-Magazine spoke to Norman about his work with dairy farmers on udder health.

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M²-Magazine: In your day-to-day work with dairy farmers what are the biggest issues that they face with regard to animal health and mastitis control?

Norman Beggs: The single biggest issue in mastitis control is reducing primary sources of infection in the herd. In my experience, control of the cow’s environment, nutrition and milking routine are the activities most commonly found to be sub-optimal in herds with poor udder health as measured by either clinical case rate or bulk milk somatic cell count.  In particular, I often find the management of the cubicle stalls and calving pens for dry cows to be sub-optimal.  By analysing milk recording and clinical case data using TotalVet software (developed by Dr Andrew Bradley of University of Nottingham), I am able to focus the herd owner’s attention on the often substantial costs of clinical and sub-clinical mastitis specific to his or her herd and focus their attention on the management activities which will reduce the primary sources of infection that are specific to the herd at that time.

 

M²-Magazine: Where does udder health and mastitis come on the “most important” list that includes nutrition issues, reproductive issues, bovine tuberculosis (bTB) and lameness?

Norman Beggs: I believe that good udder health is an essential cornerstone on which any dairy producer builds a successful business.  In herds where udder health is poor, profits are depleted by excessive culling rates and replacement rearing costs, loss of production and loss of bonuses for milk quality.  These hidden costs are not always immediately visible to the herd owner, so he or she will not be aware of the negative effect on farm profitability that sub-optimal udder health is having.  Most herd owners think that the cost of discarded milk forms two thirds of the cost of mastitis in their herd.  In actual fact, discarded milk contributes only 5% to the cost that mastitis incurs in a herd.  Increased culling rate, reduced milk production in clinical and sub-clinically infected cows and lost milk quality bonuses together make up 80% – 90% of the cost of mastitis in a herd.  When I use TotalVet software to calculate the cost of mastitis in a herd, the herd owner is often surprised to find that mastitis may have cost the farm business several tens of thousands of pounds (or Euros) in the previous year.  The other problems mentioned may be costing the business less, but are more visible to the herd owner. These include losing large numbers of cows as bTB reactors, labour costs of extra bTB tests, lame cows, or barren cows where there are fertility problems.  My aim at Udder Health Solutions is to use data analysis and motivational discussion to improve the udder health and reduce antibiotic use in every herd that I work with.

 

M²-Magazine: At what level of bulk milk somatic cell count (SCC) or at what number of clinical cases of mastitis should an individual farmer be seeking help and advice?

Norman Beggs: In my experience any herd with a bulk milk SCC in excess of 150,000 cells/ml, or a clinical case rate of more than 25 cases/100 cows/year will benefit from evidence-based, farm specific management advice based on analysis of individual cow SCC results and clinical case records.

 

M²-Magazine: And what should the farmer be aiming to achieve as regards SCC and clinical mastitis cases?

Norman Beggs: Bulk milk SCC (BMSCC) is a very blunt and often inaccurate measure of udder health, because many herds with BMSCC results of less than 150,000 cells/ml can have poor udder health caused by excessive numbers of clinical cases. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) such as the lactation new infection rate, fresh calved infection rate and dry period cure rate are much more sensitive criteria that can be used to achieve targets of a clinical case rate of less than 25 cases/100 cows/year and a BMSCC of less than 150,000 cells/ml.  All of the herds that I have worked with have initially had clinical case rates or BMSCC well in excess of these figures prior to seeking help from Udder Health Solutions. They are consistently better than these targets today as a result of implementing evidence-based, farm-specific mastitis management programs and continuous monitoring of KPIs such as lactation new infection rates and dry period new infection rates.  As well as getting cash bonuses for consistently supplying milk with SCC less than 150,000, these herds are also using 50% – 80% less intramammary antibiotic products as a result of treating fewer clinical cases and implementing selective dry cow therapy.

 

M²-Magazine: When you are called in to assist a farmer with a mastitis problem in his herd, what are the steps in analyzing the problem?

 

Norman Beggs: When asked to assist a herd owner with a mastitis problem, the first step is to analyse the individual cow milk recording SCC results for the previous two years using TotalVet software. Then I ask for the clinical case records over the previous twelve months.  Having analysed the available data, I visit the farm, preferably during milking time, to assess teat condition and management practices.  While in the parlour making teat condition assessments, I observe the milking routine being practiced.  I ask to see the results of any servicing, and static or dynamic tests carried out on the milking machine over the last two years and a list of any faults identified and corrected.  In addition, I ask for the last two dates when the liners were changed on the clusters.  If automatic cluster removers are in use, it is important to examine the milk flow rate at which clusters are being detached from cows.  I make a note of the active ingredients and concentration of each ingredient in the teat spray or dip product being used pre- and post-milking.  In addition to this I ask the herd owner to aseptically collect pre-treatment milk samples from the next 6 to 10 clinical cases and freeze these samples on-farm.  Once these samples are available, they are forwarded to Quality Milk Management Services Ltd in Somerset, England for bacterial culture, Maldi-Tof spectrometry, and, if necessary, antibiotic sensitivity testing.  This provides additional information on the spectrum of pathogens causing intramammary infections on this farm.

 

M²-Magazine: When problems are identified, what next?

Norman Beggs: When all of the data have been examined and any correlations established, I provide a written report in which each herd is classified according to the primary source of intramammary infections specific to that farm at that time.  The primary sources of intramammary infection are environmental infections and/or contagious infections that can be acquired during the dry period or during lactation. A list of management recommendations, informed by the data analyses and prioritized in order of importance, are provided.  These management recommendations are evidence-based and farm specific and their implementation will reduce the new infection rate in that herd.  A copy of this report is also forwarded to the Veterinary practitioner who prescribes antibiotics to the farm.  Together with the herd owner, I will then monitor the key performance indicators over the next twelve months by analysing trends in data outcomes, providing monthly reports and informing where further improvements can be made.  Once they have experienced the benefits (significantly fewer clinical cases, reduced antibiotic use, improved milk quality and price) of this data monitoring and positive feedback system, all of my clients retain Udder Health Solutions data analysis services on an on-going basis.

 

Fullwood automated milking parlour.
Fullwood automated milking parlour.

 

M²-Magazine: Using a live example, what data do you analyze and what problems were identified?

Norman Beggs: In July this year I was asked to investigate a 220 cow herd, with a 305 day yield of 8,400 litres per cow, that was experiencing excessive numbers of clinical mastitis cases.  Analysis of milk recording and clinical case data using TotalVet software indicated that the primary source of intramammary infections in this herd was environmental bacteria acquired during lactation.  A dynamic milk testing report, which had been prepared nine months earlier, had identified overmilking at the end of cluster attachment time.  The teat spray in use was a product marketed for pre-milking and post-milking teat disinfection which

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