Recent weather conditions have raised several health problems for cattle producers. One of the most dramatic changes has been an increase in mastitis cases on dairy farms. Mastitis can be devastating to the economic well-being of a dairy operation, and successful treatment and control measures are needed to ensure financial stability, especially in the current economic environment.
Mastitis occurs when the cow’s natural defenses are compromised and bacteria enter the teat end causing infection in the quarter. This results in severe swelling and inflammation of the affected quarter, and production of abnormal milk due to a dramatic increase in white blood cells in the mammary gland to combat the invading bacteria. There are multiple types of bacterial pathogens that can cause mastitis, but they can generally be placed into two groups, contagious and environmental pathogens.
Contagious pathogens are spread from cow to cow via milking procedures. These bacteria reside on the skin of the cow and are carried from one cow to the next on milking machines, cloths used for cleaning and the milker’s hands. Environmental pathogens are picked up when the cow comes in contact with a dirty environment combined with a teat end that is compromised by injury. A damaged teat end allows the bacteria entrance into the udder, leading to infection.
Regardless of the cause, mastitis is first and foremost a disease of management. There are many things the dairyman can do to decrease the incidence of mastitis in a herd. The first thing to consider is hygiene in the milk barn. Make sure udders and teats are clean prior to attaching milking machines. This generally is done with cloths or paper towels. You should use an individual towel on each cow; going from one cow to the next is one of the primary ways of transmitting contagious bacteria from one cow to another. Water may or may not be used. Water should not be sprayed on the udder; the dripping water seeps into liner cups during milking, increasing the chance of bacteria being sucked into the teat end during milking. Visually examine teats while cleaning; this is a great time to note injured teats, swollen quarters or other abnormalities of the udder.  During milking, try to reduce the amount of liner slippage on teats. This causes the distinctive “squawk” we all hear in the parlor. This slippage actually causes a reverse suction into the teat that can carry bacteria into the udder. Over time, slippage can cause damage to teat ends, making them prime candidates for environmental infections. Making sure liners are replaced on a scheduled basis will help ensure good contact with the teat and less slippage.
In regards to environmental mastitis, the word is CLEAN. If cows are housed in free stalls, the stalls must be cleaned daily to reduce manure and urine contamination of udders. Bedding must be dry; bacteria thrive in moisture and the goal should be to make the environment as uncomfortable for bacterial growth as possible. For cows on pasture, make sure cows have adequate acreage, and limit access to ponds. If you notice areas where cows congregate and create lots of mud, look at ways to decrease this crowding. Where cows are housed in loafing sheds, make sure bedding is kept clean and dry.
Involve your veterinarian when an outbreak occurs; they can help determine the primary cause of your mastitis problem, and make recommendations for treatment.


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