As dairy farms decrease in number but grow in size, management styles shift, and so too does the role of the veterinarian. In Spain, where herd size has increased steadily over the past decades, veterinarians focus on bettering milk quality and preventing mastitis through improved management protocol. Q-Llet co-owner and veterinarian Demetrio Herrera Mateo explains.
Dairy production in Spain
Dairy production in Spain has seen much change over the last decades. According to the Spanish Department of Agriculture, as of the first quarter of 2019, there are 837,000 milking cows across the country. In total, Spain has 13,445 dairy farms, home to 62 dairy cows, on average.
“We have two different realities in our country,” explained Herrera. “Most of our cows are on the Cantabrian Sea in the northwest, in Galicia and Asturias Around 65.70 per cent of farms are based here and they produce around 50 per cent of the country’s milk. They are made up of small family farms.
In the east, there are fewer farms, but they are much larger in size. In Catalonia, where the average farm has 167 cows, just 3 per cent of farms produce 10 per cent of the country’s milk. In total, there are about 460 dairy farms and 77,000 cows in the region.
In Spain, the average milk price is €324/ton or €32.40/100 kilograms. In 2018, average milk production per cow was 8,772 kilograms. In Catalonia where the industry is more intensive, milk production per cow per year is 10,148 kilograms.
The prevalence of contagious pathogens in Spain is fairly low, said Herrera. Streptococcus agalactiae infections are close to zero, and Staphylococcus aureus falls somewhere between 5–10 per cent. Farmers whose bulk tank samples test positive often have low somatic cell counts.
“I think it depends on the strain of S. aureus you have on your farm,” said Herrera.
Only a few farmers are dealing with Mycoplasma spp.
“Most of them face environmental challenges,” said Herrera.
Changing farm size means a change in management
Possibly the biggest change Spain’s dairy sector has seen over the past decade has to do with farm size. Ten years ago there were 23,000 dairy farms across the country. Today, there that number has dropped to 17,000. Similar to other countries around the globe, small Spanish family farms are on the decline, while large farm operations are on the rise. Total milk production is also on the rise. In 2006, average milk production per cow per year was 6,770 kilograms. Today, that number has risen to 8,772 kilograms.
Addressing today’s challenges
As the dairy sector changes and advances, so too must Q-Llet’s team. Q-Llet is a vet services company based in Barcelona, Spain. Founded by partners Demetrio Herrera Mateo and Oriol Franquesa Oller in 2005, the company employs two veterinarians, Laura Hurtado Rivas and Gemma Benaiges Garcia.
Q-Llet focuses exclusively on milk quality. The team acts as dairy farm consultants and works closely with farm managers, milkers and veterinarians to prevent mastitis problems, and to improve udder health and milk quality. This, they say, helps farm businesses to increase overall profitability.
Their client list also includes large dairy cooperatives, as well as
pharmaceutical, feed and milk machine companies.
One of the challenges of growing farm size is the need for more employees. A big part of the business now is training those employees to keep up with standards, especially when it comes to milking. Q-Llet helps farmers develop standard operating procedures and offers assistance with the continuous training of personnel. In Spain, many milkers come from as far as Africa and India where training is limited, said Herrera.
“The milking task is the last step of a bigger process, which is milk production,” said Herrera. “We had to make many things before that, but at the end everything is collected during milking time. I wouldn’t leave my business in the hands of someone who has no idea about cows or milking.”
The best farms train their staff often and treat their employees well so they become permanent members of the team.
“The longer they stay, the better they are in terms of efficiency,” said Herrera.
In the northwest where farm size is smaller, there has been increased investment in robotic milkers, although overall uptake in Spain has been somewhat slow compared to Europe’s northern countries. These investments correlate with qualified labour shortages.
Herrera says milking robots could be a solution for those medium-sized family farms that can afford them. Robotic milkers are not as popular in Catalonia where the Q-Llet team does the bulk of their work.
Improving milk quality and reducing risk of mastitis is not very complicated, said Herrera. It’s a matter of changing habits and reducing bacterial pressure.
Heat stress, which can last from May to October, is also of great concern to Spanish dairy farmers. Heat stress can impair immune systems, and provides the perfect environment for bacteria to thrive. Taking care of the milking routine, machine and hygiene in the milking environment all help to lower potential outbreaks.
Since mastitis is a multifactorial disease it requires a multifactorial approach that includes daily maintenance and regular monitoring, said Herrera.
“I think this is the very beginning of everything,” he said. “If you are able to keep your cows clean through the whole lactation period, and also for sure for transition cows, you have made the biggest step. After that, we help them to develop standard operating procedures for milking routine and train the staff.”
Q-Llet also performs regular checks and fine tuning of the milking machine in terms of pulsator performance and vacuum dynamics, just to ensure that everything is going well. Alongside this, the team analyzes milk flow data to evaluate the milking routine. They’ve also developed a program that monitors individual somatic cell count data each month. This is done to check dynamics of infection during lactation and dry off period. It also helps them to point out problematic cows and to make better decisions in terms of treatment or culling
“We believe that monitoring data is essential to help them to improve,” said Herrera. “If you have no data, you don’t know where you are. If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know where you have to go.”
“The human memory is too short, you know,” he continued. “If I asked you how many mastitis cases you had last year in May, probably you would fail to answer if you have no data.”
“We try to have good records for our clients, not only to show them the benefit, but also show them the impact of every change you make in management in terms of profitability,” Herrera concluded.
Recently, farmers have started asking questions about reducing antibiotic use through selective dry cow therapy and on-farm cultures.
“Probably this is the hot topic right now,” said Herrera.
While there isn’t currently a specific national policy on selective dry cow therapy in Spain, the government is pushing to implement one, he said. Farmers who have proactively implemented new practices to reduce overall antibiotic use have done so with good results, though.
“On some farms we have been able to reduce more than 50 per cent of antibiotics and we haven’t experienced any catastrophes,” he said. “Milk quality remains the same level.”
While mastitis cases have increased on some farms where antibiotics use is limited, overall the results have been good. Herrera believes that many farmers, especially those with strong management protocol, will be able to lower their usage quite substantially without consequence.
Q-Llet has been in operation since 2005. The group gives advice on udder health, milking machine and cooling systems design and testing, animal facilities design and maintenance, milkers training, food safety and animal welfare. Helping farmers to improve milk quality is at the heart of what they do. For more information visit: qllet.com