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Gillian O'Sullivan: Tackling causes of mastitis can save a fortune


Gillian O'Sullivan. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Gillian O'Sullivan. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Gillian O'Sullivan. Photo: Gerry Mooney

It’s never an enjoyable task, but the first job to complete in July is to change the liners in the parlour.

Everyone has their own method of changing liners. Mine involves cutting off the old one on the narrow end to remove it. While the new one is slipped into the cluster, I sling the cluster between two bars to pull out the liner, then dunk it into some hot water for it to expand and glide back onto the cluster cup fitting.

I forgot to mention a decent level of huffing and puffing. As I have three weeks to go before my pregnancy due date, I have been excused from changing liners this July but this job is simply one cog in the annual cycle that we have developed over the years to set up the farm for managing SCC. 

Much of this follows the principles of the cell check programme from AHI but the motivation to do so has been born from experiencing problems around contagious mastitis seven years ago.

One of the most common questions asked when groups visit our farm to learn about our OAD system is: What do you do about mastitis and somatic cell counts (SCC)?

The best answer I can give is that we have changed our focus towards prevention. There is no silver bullet in managing SCC.

Low SCC doesn’t come about because of some novel product — it comes from considering the factors that cause mastitis, such as the parlour, the milking routine, the environment, the cow, bacteria type, and integrating a programme of prevention into the year to offset as many of these factors as possible.

Early spring tasks include a parlour service and liner change, while the cubicles change from being limed once a day to twice as we get within two weeks of calving.

The disinfectant product we used on the cubicles was changed as products such as hydrated lime can be very harsh on sensitive teat skin, especially around calving.

Every cow has a California mastitis test (CMT) before her milk goes into the bulk tank after calving, and pre-stripping is carried out daily on all cows.

Teat disinfection products have also changed towards a ready-to-use (RTU) product, which ensures concentration consistency with water of adequate quality, while usage has been monitored, aiming for 100pc teat barrel coverage with 15ml per cow per milking.

Putting that in terms of cows, for 100 cows, that’s using at least 1.5L of teat disinfectant each milking.

Wearing gloves during milking is compulsory and we regularly wash gloved hands during milking, while gloves are changed if a cow with mastitis is handled.

Teat condition is checked every day, with attention paid to any changes, especially at the teat ends, and action is taken if bulk tank SCC increases.

Milk recording is carried out, analysed and acted upon with a low tolerance of chronically high SCC cows.

To prevent spread of contagious mastitis in the parlour we had developed a routine of cluster dipping with peracetic acid but this task is tiring and it’s difficult to get relief milkers to spend the time to do it correctly.

A clusterflush system was installed 18 months ago, and automating this task has given great peace of mind, with very few spikes in SCC experienced since its installation.

In terms of breeding, we are very conscious of udder confirmation with bull selection, as weak udder ligaments are a disaster when milking OAD, leading to low swinging, awkward udders that simply don’t last more than three or four lactations.

Any cases of mastitis during the year are sampled and frozen and sent to the lab for culture in October, giving us a good indication of the problem bacteria that are present in the herd. 

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Selective dry cow therapy (SDCT) has been increasing, with 25-30pc of cows receiving sealer only at dry-off last year and no issues with mastitis at calving, giving us great encouragement to increase numbers again this year.

As long as a cow has had no case of mastitis in the year, SCC is under 100 and has been milk recorded within the previous month, she is considered for SDCT.

As we are 18 months away from a ban on blanket antibiotic treatments, it’s important for our farm to have confidence in complying with these new regulations.

Antibiotic usage is coming under increasing scrutiny and the truth of prevention being better than cure will follow.

Here is one area where economic gain can be achieved from investing in SCC management. Mastitis is regarded as the most economically significant infectious disease of cows, with an average case costing €261, according to a UCD study. This might sound outlandish but when treatment, labour, discarded milk, subsequent reduced milk yield and increased risk of culling are all totted up, prevention measures are small in comparison.

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