I had to call on the services of our electrician yet again last week. The very old building that is the base for our vet practice is defying all logic when it comes to wiring. At one point, when we put in electric gates, they would only work when the sensor light at the back door came on. Yet, our excellent electrician keeps calling when he’s needed, despite the invariable mess that awaits him.
After fixing the complex issue, he began to explain to me the ins and outs of our building’s issues. I cut him short and said, “I’m up the walls today and as long as it’s fixed, I’m happy”.
As I drove to my next call, a meeting with a farmer discussion group, I realised what I had just done. Like an ostrich, I had stuck my head in the sand. I knew there were bigger issues that needed addressing in our building, but, in my head, I was too busy to acknowledge them. Today was OK and we’ll deal with tomorrow, well, tomorrow. Funnily enough, I had just done exactly what I was trying to convince farmers in our meeting not to do.
The discussion centered around milk recording and analysis of the data that comes from it. Milk recording gives us a massive amount of data and an excellent insight into trends in the herd and also the performance of individual cows. SCC (somatic cell count) is the main focal point for most farmers and it is a thorny issue to discuss.
SCC isn’t like other diseases in a herd. For example, if there is an outbreak of IBR in a herd of cows, the vet comes out, treats sick cows and takes samples. The samples come back positive for IBR and a vaccination programme is put it in place. Bob’s your uncle, problem solved. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with SCC. To solve an SCC issue in a herd, it must involve an all-encompassing approach. The cubicle sheds, feed space, the calving box, the collecting yard and the parlour must all be scrutinised for any flaws. Any high SCC cows or mastitis cases should be cultured to determine the main bug that’s causing the issues. An aggressive culling policy has to be implemented for repeat offenders and many hard decisions will need to be made around culling “great cows”.
I can almost hear some of you exhale a long, frustrated sigh at this stage. In truth, you’ve heard all the this before and even at my farmer meeting last week, I could see some people start to lose interest.
Having grown up on a dairy farm, I can see why. Farming at present is a pressurised environment. Input costs are soaring and the amount of cows that are needed to support a family is growing exponentially. Add to that the constraints that are being put on farmers to comply with EU regulations. The cut off point for bulk milk SCC in some co-ops is as high as 400,000. If your herd doesn’t go over this, then you don’t get fined. Many farmers neither have the time, nor the desire to address an SCC problem as long as the herd stays below the cut off.
So why bother at all? We have to make reference to the antibiotic regulations that we now need to comply with. Up to now, you could get whatever mastitis tube you liked and whatever dry cow tube tickled your fancy. Antibiotics that a doctor in a hospital would have to jump through hoops to use, any farmer could freely use on 200 cows.
Overuse and incorrect use of antibiotics is leading to resistance. Bacteria are becoming smarter and are learning how to develop defences so that antibiotics won’t kill them.
Some cases of mastitis will resolve without any antibiotic treatment — anti-inflammatories alone will do. Other cases will need antibiotics but certainly not the higher-tier ones. Similarly, some cows don’t need antibiotics at drying off (selective dry cow therapy). The reality is that antibiotics have been covering over the cracks that are in many farming systems for the past number of years and we have now reached a critical point. There are two options. One, bury our heads in the sand like an ostrich, or option two, address the issues at hand.
It is important to state that both options are viable, depending on a lot of factors. As a vet, before starting a mastitis/SCC investigation, there is a page with a few questions on it that I, and the farmer, must answer. It might sound a bit “airy-fairy” but indulge me for a minute. Does the farmer want my help and are they willing to listen? Have they the time and the commitment? Do they want to be in business in 10 years time?
Often, the answers aren’t simply yes or no, but we have to figure out before we start if it’s worthwhile starting at all, because if its not, we won’t get results and everyone gets frustrated. The vet too has to ask a very important question about themselves: Do I want to help? Each individual vet is different and for reasons such as lack of time, being overworked or simply having a personality clash with the farmer, may not be the best vet in the practice at that time to take on the project.
If everyone is on board to address the issue, compliance with antibiotic regulations will be the foundation of a plan. Any mastitis case, or even a quarter that has been identified as having a high SCC, should be sampled. Over the course of the year, you will be able to build up a bank of information that will tell you what bug is causing problems in your herd and what antibiotic will best treat it.
The cost of sampling may seem initially expensive, but if it even saves just one cow/heifer being culled, then it will pay back for itself 10-fold. The beauty of routine milk sample analysis is that not only does it help the bottom line, but it stands up to scrutiny if/when you get a medicines inspection.
Like me and my dodgy electrics, you can still bury your head in the sand. The only thing about that is, if your head’s in the sand, your rear end is in the air and it won’t be long before it gets kicked.
Eamon O’Connell is a vet with Summerhill Vet Clinic, Nenagh, Co Tipperary