Opportunities and challenges of the mastitis advisor

Being a mastitis and milk quality advisor comes with challenges. You are faced with a range of clients who can have different expectations in relation to problem solving and time scales. Some farmers will reluctantly be seeking advice as their milk buyer might be unhappy with their cell count and impose financial penalties.

Dairy farmers in the UK and many other countries must have a herd health plan and if levels of disease are high, such as mastitis or lameness, they need to have a plan to reduce disease and then show this reduction. Farmers are busy people and their priorities might be in other areas and so might not be that committed to reducing disease at this time, even though they know it’s the right thing to do.

Most forward-thinking farmers welcome advice and will be keen to keep improving. These are usually highly motivated individuals with high expectations. These are great people to work with as they constantly want to improve.

This author has been advising farmers for over 30 years from very small herds in Africa with one or more cows to the large super dairies in the developed world. This article focuses on some of the key opportunities and challenges and some of the ways that these can be overcome.


Explain mastitis

Mastitis is not a complex disease and yet many people don’t understand the disease at all. There can be great confusion between clinical and subclinical mastitis, diagnosis of clinical mastitis, contagious and environmental mastitis, the mastitis bacteria etc. Some farmers believe that cows pick up mastitis from the air, drinking water, eating forage etc.

Spending time to explain the disease pays dividends. Breaking down the differences between contagious and environmental disease is helpful. This author likes to break the disease down as shown in Table 1. This simple approach works well and makes it easy for people to understand.

The differences between individual bacteria present on the farm are explained using using learning aids like Giant Microbes (www.giantmicrobes.com) which are fun and helpful. It saves farmers having to remember bacterial names which can be complicated.

Once mastitis has been explained there can be a light bulb moment when everything clicks into place. Controlling the disease then becomes understandable and they are more likely to follow advice.

Focus on the key problem

It’s important to focus on why the farmer has asked for your help. A farmer might request help with a cell count problem but when you are there you discover that clinical mastitis levels are very high. It can be easy then to move attention away from the cell count and focus on clinical mastitis but that is not why the farmer has asked for your input.

It’s a bit like going to see a mechanic because you have a problem with your battery. You want the battery problem fixed but the mechanic notices that you need some new tyres and forgets about the battery. You would not be impressed. So, sort out the initial problem that you were asked to advise on and then you can discuss other concerns. Sometimes the two might be related and you manage both problems to meet the farmer’s needs.


Use an organised approach to problem solving

Mastitis data can be analysed and bacteriology samples collected before a visit. This gives an indication of the problem. However, some herds have poor or inaccurate clinical mastitis records and so analysis can be very misleading. Some herds do not carry out individual cow cell count tests which are essential when tackling a herd cell count problem. Bacteriology results might not be available before a visit.

This author allows plenty of time for a visit arriving usually two to three hours before milking. The first part of the visit is with the owner, manager and any key players sitting around a table. It is important to hear their concerns, what they think are contributing to the problem and what actions have been taken.

Active listening, where you repeat back what is said, is used to ensure that there is no confusion and there is a clear understanding of what has been said. Good communication skills are key to success.

Then it is time where lots of questions are asked about mastitis management using a checklist. Checklists are commonly used by medical teams, pilots checking the plane before a flight etc. They have proved to be a highly effective way of following a process and this author uses a checklist that is followed for every mastitis investigation. It’s easy to overlook some areas that could be significant.

Using a checklist is a useful way to ensure that you don’t miss problem areas

By this stage there should be a good understanding of the problems and the mastitis management. It’s now time to put on boots and go and see what is happening. There can be times when a manager or owner tells you one thing only to find that something totally different is happening. Boots on time is likely to be at least three hours and much longer for larger herds.

Normally a couple of hours will be spent in the parlour carrying out a range of observation and tests such

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