During the pandemic, the dairy industry saw the consumer demand for milk, butter, and other dairy products rise while more people ate at home. It’s a buying habit the dairy industry would like to see continue, after experiencing declining fluid milk sales in much of the previous decade.
A key to maintaining that demand is to continue sending positive messages to consumers about U.S. milk production, starting at the producer level, said Linda Tikofsky, DVM, Boehringer Ingelheim. “Producers understand consumer concerns about milk quality and should continue to do a good job of communicating to the public all the care and safeguards that go into milk production on today’s dairy farms. That includes more judicious use of antibiotics for management of mastitis infections.”
“Being more thoughtful about antibiotic use is necessary in preserving it as an important tool in our medical kits for the long term,” she said. “That involves understanding the disease process, principles of antibiotic use and the length of treatment, as well as making sure we’re matching the drug to the bug.”
In the case of severe clinical mastitis, cows need to be treated immediately, she added. “But with mild or moderate clinical mastitis, where there is abnormal milk or maybe swelling of the quarter, we can step back and consider the cow’s future in the herd, do a culture so we understand what’s causing the mastitis and then make a decision about which treatment is necessary — or maybe that no treatment is needed since some bacterial infections will cure on their own.”
With mild and moderate mastitis cases, waiting 24 hours for a culture result to make a more informed decision about treatment makes no difference to the health of the cow, the outcome of the disease or the cure rate, noted Tikofsky. “Not all bacterial causes can be treated with antibiotics, and a certain percent of cases will self-cure with supportive care.”
She recommends that producers work with their veterinarians to develop first- and second-line protocols for treatment of common diseases, including mastitis, to avoid unnecessary antibiotic use.
Pathogen-based treatment savings
Mastitis is often the number one disease that many herds face, in terms of incidence. Its impact on the bottom line is another motivating factor in trying to reduce antibiotic use, said Michael Capel, DVM, a partner at Perry Vet, PLLC, Perry, New York, who works with dairies throughout the western part of the state.
“With pathogen-based mastitis therapy, we identify the type of bacteria causing the mastitis and only use antibiotics to treat those we know will respond to them, namely streptococci,” he said. “If coliform bacteria are cultured or no pathogen is cultured at all, we usually wouldn’t treat with an antibiotic. Depending on the profile of the bacteria causing mastitis, herds using pathogen-based mastitis therapy can reduce antibiotic use by up to 65 percent, versus blanket herd antibiotic treatment.”
Studies at Cornell University have shown that pathogen-based treatment results in $30 more profit per cow, on an annual basis. “For a 1,000-cow herd that adds up to $30,000 in financial upside per year in reduced labor, less antibiotic cost, and more milk sold,” he said, “and with the same clinical outcomes as with blanket-based antibiotic treatment.”
Keys to prevention
After years of working with dairy operations of all sizes, Capel has observed three management areas that are key to mastitis prevention, and worth regularly reviewing with employees:
- Bedding management. Remove manure as soon as possible and keep plenty of fresh bedding under cattle so animals, and particularly udders, remain clean and dry.
- Teat-end cleanliness. Regularly reviewing the pre-milking teat-cleaning process with employees helps ensure that no steps are skipped or shortened. Taking a few extra seconds during cleaning to examine teat ends can also help identify any condition issues.
- Animal handling and environment. Keeping cows calm before milking is critical, and it starts when workers enter the barn. Cattle shouldn’t be startled or rushed to the parlor. Gentle handling also avoids muck splatters and injuries.