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

as teat scoring, assessing cleanliness of the udder and teats as cows enter the parlour, how well teats are prepared, milking machine performance, liner slip etc. Opinions of the milking team are very helpful.


Milking machine function

The milking machine can affect mastitis. Newer installations reduce this risk as their design and performance are significantly better than older milking parlours that were installed 30 or 40 years ago which are more likely to have narrow bore pipes, poor ACRs and less stable vacuum levels.

Most herds will have a static milking machine test carried out twice a year. This is equivalent to a mechanical check on a car and tells you how well the milking machine is working when cows are not being milked. It is important to have a dynamic milking machine carried out which assesses parlour performance when cows are being milked. Ideally this will be carried out on high yielding cows at the far end of the parlour where the system is under most pressure. This is the equivalent of taking a car for a test drive.

Dynamic testing should be carried out at least once a year

Teat scoring

In addition to any milking machine testing it is useful to carry out observations during milking. Teat scoring immediately after milking is very useful. If there is damage or evidence of congestion or oedema these indicate machine problems. These tests complement and do not replace static and dynamic milking machine tests. It’s important to know if the machine could be contributing to any problem.

Teat scoring checks on teat damage which will increase mastitis risk

Dry cows and maiden heifers

It can be easy to focus all attention on the milking cows, but it is important to visit and assess dry cows and maiden heifers (pregnant heifers). Maiden heifers do not commonly receive an internal teat sealant and so if these are kept in poor environmental conditions the risk of dry period infections will be high. It might be assumed that the risk of dry period infections for dry cows is low because they had an internal teat sealant at dry off. If these are kept in poor conditions, the risk of infection rises and so checking these groups of animals is important.


Bacteriology testing

It is important to identify which bacteria causing the problem. Bacteria are different in how they behave, their treatment success and how controlled. It is uncommon to just have one organism causing all mastitis problems in a herd.

The cost of bacteriology in relation to the cost of mastitis is small and yet many farmers carry out little testing. Samples can be taken from bulk milk, clinical mastitis, high cell count cows, bedding and water.

Bacteriology is important to help manage mastitis

Samples Should be tested by an accredited laboratory that gives accurate results. If using on farm culture, sent off duplicate samples to confirm accuracy of results.

Bulk milk sampling is a useful screening test

Bulk tank analysis is a useful screening tool, bacteria have come from the cow, environment, parlour or bulk tank. The coliform count can give an indication of teat preparation. You can quantify levels of Strep. uberis, Staph. aureus and other bacteria. Bacteria in the bulk milk can be identified and this is a useful screening tool for contagious bacteria such as Mycoplasma, Strep. agalactiae etc.

Pseudomonas would suggest contaminated water supplies, the presence of yeast would suggest poor hygiene etc. Other tests like thermoduric and psychotroph counts can assist with any Bactoscan problems. Best practice is to screen bulk milk on a regular basis for monitoring purposes.

All cases of clinical mastitis should be sampled and regularly collect samples from high cell count cows. Knowing the bacteria helps ensures control measures can be updated as necessary.


Agreeing a mastitis action plan

At the end of the farm visit, the advisor can explain how the key problem areas are affecting mastitis in a way where management can come up with their own solutions. It’s best to show what you find and then discuss how these could be improved. Ideally you want management to come up with their own solutions as these will be better adopted than imposed recommendations. Asking additional question and making some comments can help achieve these goals.

Showing a problem to the manager in the parlour is much better than explaining it in an office

Focus on a the most important changes that need to be made and only a small number of these at first. These is no point in making 20 recommendations as this is far more than anyone can cope with. Start small and then add in other changes once the initial actions have been adopted. Recommendations must be practical. Always provide a written note of agreed actions so there is no doubt about what was agreed.

It’s important to spend time in the parlour and seeing what’s being done rather than sitting in an office analysing records and talking to management. Change often happens and people can slip into old habits.


Training, SOPs, foreign workers and staff motivation

Training of all farm staff to ensure that they follow the correct procedures is essential. It helps them to understand why changes are being made. Encourage their comments as often they have good suggestions. Translators should be used for foreign workers.

Training should be ongoing and repeated as necessary. Certificates of training are motivating, and staff like them.

SOPs (standard operating procedures) should, be drawn up and discussed with staff so they know that this is the agreed procedure to be followed. This avoids any doubt about is expected. Where there are foreign workers these can be translated and so on some farms, SOPs might be in three or more languages. SOPs can be amended as necessary.

Research has shown that herds perform best when they invest in staff training. Many staff have questions but may be too shy to ask these during a team meeting. One way around this is to tell staff that they can write down questions in advance to avoid any embarrassment. It is surprising how many questions can be asked if there is a good atmosphere at training.

Having targets and sharing key performance indicators with staff is helpful. Some have bonus systems in place to reward workers for low cell counts and other mastitis indicators.

Mastitis training over food is a great way to increase knowledge and pass on messages
This herd which milks 4X records new cases of mastitis by parlour and coliform counts for each milking in both parlours
A simple milk sock scoring system used by a Chinese dairy herd

A simple whiteboard with basic mastitis data is simple and effective is showing results but this only work if these are discussed with staff. This could show weekly or monthly data with target levels. Some herds score the milk filters after every milking and go through this with milkers. Praise should be given for good work and if things need to improve than steps need to be taken to make this happen.

An advisor can have a big impact on staff motivation. An advisor could compliment good work when it is seen, give a written note praising progress or good work, bring cakes or cookies when visiting.


Set targets and timescales

Everyone wants to have a realistic expectation of where they can be in the future. Setting realistic targets is very helpful. These must be achievable and ideally exceeded. There is nothing better that talking to a farmer who tells you that they have beaten the target you set in a shorter time.

A farmer with a cell count problem wants to see a reduction in bulk tank cell count. Farmers are told to allow a period of approximately one year to reduce the herd cell count significantly if all control measures and actions for high cell count cows are followed. Explain that the period of one year, the length of a lactation, is needed to remove infection. Removal of problem chronic cows with a high percent contribution to the herd cell count will show an immediate improvement and is motivating.

At times quick improvements can be seen, for example in herds with clinical mastitis problems due to a poor teat preparation or herds with dry period infections that do not use an internal teat sealant.


Monitoring and follow up

It is important to follow up progress after the initial visit to ensure that a long-term solution is reached. Farmers are busy people and often forget what was advised. Procedures might change. New staff join the farm and follow their old way of working which might have a negative impact on the problem.

Follow up can be by phone or assessing the mastitis data but visiting the farm, seeing what’s happening and ensuring that any changes have been implemented is the best way. If the problems are not improving, then visit the farm and review all mastitis control measures.


Decision making for problem cows

Cows with recurrent clinical mastitis should be culled along with cows with chronic subclinical mastitis. These decisions can be very difficult and often are left to the farmer when it would be best for these to be made with the farmer and advisor.

Some farmers have made costly incorrect decisions, for example culling cows with Strep agalactiae infections which would have responded to dry cow therapy. Best practice is for the advisor to go through these cows with the farmer and to make joint decisions.


Managing large herds

Mastitis problem solving in large herds is different. You need to allow much more time for a visit. Many of these herds have excellent data analysis, in-house laboratories, better facilities and more highly trained staff.

There are some herds that have multiple parlours, for example four 80-point rotary parlours in a 20,000 dairy in China. In these herds it’s important to see what is happening in each parlour and not just look at one and assume that all the others are operating in the same way.

Parlour performance, housing and bedding might be different, the parlour supervisor might take a different approach to other units etc. It’s important to fully assess each of these units, and don’t forget to look at management of the hospital group and parlour. For bog herds like this a visit can take many days.

A lot of time might be needed to ensure that owners or managers fully understand the problem, the economic losses and welfare implications of mastitis. This helps ensure that support, financial or other resources, are made available to provide a solution.

You need more time to assess parlour and milking routine in herds with multiple parloursa

Cost benefit of advice

It is useful to demonstrate success and to be able to show the return on investment from advice. We want to continue to be involved so that mastitis problems do not return and that levels of disease can reduce further.

For example, take a herd of 500 cows that had a mastitis rate of 75 cases of mastitis per 100 cows per year, 375 cases each year, and a herd cell count of 125,000/ml. Clinical mastitis problems were due to Gram negative infections. A target was set for this to reduce to 45 within 12 months. The herd exceeded the target and the actual figure was 35, 175 cases in the year after the visit by improving teat preparation, use of internal teat sealants and some other changes.

Show farmers to cost benefit of mastitis advice

The owner said that each cases of mastitis was costing him €300. There were 200 less cases of mastitis and this was worth €60,000. Internal teat sealants cost €10/cow and were used on 400 cows as 100 cows were culled. Total cost of internal teat sealants was €4,000. There were expenses for better quality teat dip and more bedding, and these costs were €7,000. Advisory fees were €4,000. Total cost was €15,000 against a cost saving of €60,000, giving a return on investment of 400%. The owner was delighted and considered it an excellent return on investment and wanted his advisor to continue to be regularly involved in the herd.


Text and illustrations: Peter Edmondson, Udderwise Ltd.