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Beating off the infection issue

Today's typical dairy farmer has more cows and replacements than they had 10 years ago. They are also calving cows closer to February.

Teagasc advice nowadays is to calve all cows as close together as possible and with very efficient reproduction management; at least 80pc of the cows should calve in six weeks. This kind of success rate heaps pressure on the stockman and on facilities and, unless they are well-organised with good work routines, the whole process of calving cows, moving calves and feeding them can very easily get on top of the best stockmen/women.

This can easily lead to its own problems with poorer cow and calf health resulting in increased veterinary expenses. Any dairy farmer will tell you it's the numbers that are the problem. The real problem is the sick cow, the sick calf or the groups of calves with scour. These issues can make for very long days and nights on the dairy farm.

There is a range of infectious agents -- bacteria, viruses and parasites -- that do battle with our stock. In reply, the animal has two major defence mechanisms. Physical defence -- the skin -- is the best example. If the infection manages to penetrate the physical defences of an animal, its cellular defences come into play. Included here would be the white blood cells that come out to attack an infection, such as mastitis.

So, how does one eliminate or minimise the problems caused by sick animals this spring? Let's start with the calving facilities first. Calving is the most critical time of a cow's life. Cows must calve down in a clean environment.

Aidan Brennan, the farm manager at the Curtin's Farm in Moorepark, tells me that they have two long calving boxes bedded with straw. Straw is added every day and the calving boxes are cleaned out and disinfected every 10 days. The calving boxes are right beside the cubicle house.

At the entrance to the calving pen is a table which contains the following essential pieces of equipment: A box of arm-length gloves, a box of hand gloves, paper towels, a dispenser with soap detergent, lubrication and a tap with running water.

Important pieces of equipment, such as the calving ropes, are left immersed in a gallon of water, which has been treated with dettol. A cover is placed over the bucket to ensure no dirt gets into it. The calving jack is also to be found here.

As soon as the calf is born the navel cord is sprayed with an iodine solution. This is critical as the cord is the only part of the animal not covered with a protective layer of skin and is therefore very susceptible to entry of infection. Applying the iodine to the navel will immediately kill any bacteria that may have already become established.

Also at the entrance to the calving box is a foot bath with a gallon of disinfectant beside it. As you can imagine, dipping your feet into disinfectant is absolutely critical to prevent carrying any bacteria, parasites or viruses to the newborn calf. Hygiene is critical to breaking the disease/animal link at this time and, unfortunately, it is an area all too forgotten about when the rush is on to give the cow assistance to calve without difficulty.

One other point worth mentioning here is that a second set of calving ropes should be bought and placed beside the rest of the items needed for calving cows, because I am sure you have heard of Murphy's Law.

Instead of a table beside the calving pen, I know of one farmer who bolted a section of box gutter to the wall. This holds most of the items I have previously mentioned and is neat and tidy.

What about hygiene in the cubicle house? Good hygiene at this time of the year is essential. Cows will soon be springing up to calve, and this means the udder will begin to fill up with colostrum. The really critical period is two weeks before calving.


Clean, dry cubicles are essential during the two weeks before calving and, indeed, for the length of time the calved cow remains indoors. Mastitis is the enemy here and good hygiene is required to keep it at bay. Cows calving down with mastitis are a sure sign that all is not well with hygiene, either on the cubicle bed or the passage way directly behind the cubicle, in the two weeks prior to calving down.

The number of clinical cases of mastitis that occur in the first month of calving is a good indicator of how good hygiene standards are. The benchmark is five clinical cases of mastitis for every 100 cows during this period.

What hygiene programme should you have to ensure that diseases, such as mastitis, are kept to the minimum?

Let's look at the operation of scrapers first. At Curtin's farm in Moorepark the scrapers only run four times a day. However, some dairy farmers I spoke to say they run them for at least six times a day and maybe even eight times a day. One farmer uses the following times for operating scrapers: 7am, 10.30am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm, 10pm and 4am.

These seven times ensure that a cow's feet will be clean and the farmer will be minimising the amount of dung they take up onto the cubicle beds.

And what of the cubicle beds themselves? Clean, dry beds are essential in the fight against mastitis. If they have rubber mats on them, all the better, and they will also be easier to clean.

At Curtin's, the cubicle beds are hand scraped twice a day. They are also dusted with Agri-Cal lime. Half the length of the cubicle is done. This ensures the cubicles are dry.

A farmer I spoke to also hand scrapes the cubicle beds twice a day but, instead of Agri-Cal lime, he used a mixture of 2/3 sawdust and 1/3 hydrated lime. He put the mixture in four 5ga drums and spread it on the 120 cubicles every day.

I know farmers say that hydrated lime damages a cow's teats, but this farmer has been using it for several years now.

What about using disinfectant sprays on cubicle beds? This is a practice that I see recommended more and more. Certainly, the use of a disinfectant will kill any bacteria that are present in the cubicle.

Have they a place? In a situation where hygiene practices are not good then they will help the situation, but they certainly are not a substitute for good hygiene practices.

And finally, have you decided that, in this milking season, you will wear rubber gloves at milking times? Why? Dirt gets into the crevices of your hands during milking time, or it may be there before milking time, and this dirt is passed from cow to cow, making the likelihood of mastitis infection greater. It is much easier to disinfect gloved hands. The disinfectant is also much more effective and so the disease link between the milker and the cow is broken.

The best strategy is to play the hygiene card.

Irish Independent