Mastitis, antibiotics and milk

Why do we use antibiotics on our farm? Very simply, because despite everything we do to look after their well being, cows, just like people, sometimes fall ill and need antibiotics to get better.

It’s very rare that any of our 260 milking cows become lame with an infection while digestive problems are almost unheard of here and, in any case, do not require antibiotics.

The number one illness we treat on our farm is mastitis. If you’ve breastfed a baby yourself, there’s a fair chance you’ve experienced mastitis. In both cows and women, the symptoms include swelling, warmth and redness for light cases. Nasty cases bring flu-like symptoms that, in cows, can progress to become extremely serious.

How we prevent mastitis
So, how do we reduce the incidence of mastitis on the farm? We begin even before the calf is conceived by selecting sires whose daughters show a naturally lower susceptibility to mastitis.

At the same time, we minimise the risk of infection by keeping the cows and their environment as clean as possible. Tracks are maintained so there’s less mud around to flick onto teats and cows are happy to walk straight to their grassy paddocks rather than spending their rest times on mucky surfaces.

Cows resting in the paddock

Cows resting in the paddock after milking

The cows are well fed with a carefully balanced diet that is mostly grass and we treat the cows with care to minimise stress. It’s a slow, gentle walk to the milking shed, there’s no shouting and if I see one of our cows run, there’d better be a good explanation!

The hygiene of the dairy is important, too. We clean any dirty teats before the milking machine cups go on and spray them afterwards with a mix of iodine and glycerine to disinfect and protect them. We also routinely test the milking machines to make sure they are gentle and effective.

And we’re vigilant. Not surprisingly, when you spend hours every day with the cows’ udders at face level, you notice a sore cow quite quickly. A sore cow is an unhappy cow and an unhappy cow is an unhappy milker, too. Everyone who milks in the dairy has been specially trained at a “Cups On, Cups Off” course to look for mastitis and put top priority on the comfort of our cows.

Sometimes, cows have sub-clinical infections that don’t show any symptoms, so every few weeks, we collect samples of milk from every cow and have them analysed at the local herd test centre lab.

It’s a lot of work but it’s important work. The comfort of the cows is our number one priority and there are implications for the quality of the milk, too. If there is too much mastitis in the herd, our milk has a shorter shelf life.

One thing we don’t do, however, is include antibiotics in the cows’ feed. Routine antibiotic use is not legal and would mean that none of our milk would be useable.

Treating mastitis
When we find a cow with mastitis, we don’t wait to see whether she goes downhill, we treat her immediately with the medicine prescribed by (and only available from) our vets to help her recover fast. Antibiotics help the cow feel better in a day and we keep on milking her so that her udder is well drained and kept as soft as possible.

Making sure milk is free from antibiotic residues
The milk we collect from a treated cow is tipped out until there is no risk of antibiotic residues in the milk. The antibiotics come with quite precise details of how long they remain in meat and milk. It’s critical information because nobody wants food laced with antibiotics, especially those with life-threatening allergies.

As precautionary measures, we:

  • paint the cow’s udder red as a warning to everyone in the dairy that she either needs more treatment or to have her milk disposed of,
  • write her treatment needs and the time her milk needs to be withheld from the vat on a whiteboard in the dairy for all to see, and
  • record all her treatment details in a quality and treatment register.

After she has finished a course of treatment, we check the cow again to be sure the infection has cleared up.

Testing for antibiotic residues
Even with all these protocols, it’s good to know that if milk contaminated with antibiotics somehow got into the vat, there are more safeguards in place. In the next post, a guest from milk processor, Fonterra, will explain how they test our milk for antibiotics.

The bottom line
Our cows live good, healthy lives and rarely fall ill but when they do get sick, we give them the best treatment available straight away. For people and animals alike, antibiotics are our last line of defence against misery and death, so we use them only when really needed and then with great care. And I don’t want to go back to a world without them.

On your marks for Spring on the farm

Spring starts tomorrow

Spring starts tomorrow


I’m excited. Fertiliser’s going on, calves are still being born and raised, almost all of the milkers are in and we are joining again with an eye to the next generation. The grass is growing a new leaf every seven days and, before we know it, the silage harvest will start.

This is the make or break time of year when everything has to be done right. Miss cutting a paddock of silage by a week and it could mean buying in expensive fodder later, miss a cow’s readiness to mate and it could cost you $250 in lost milk, miss a problem calving and it might cost a cow’s life.

All our skills are tested in Spring – from biology through to animal behaviour – so we need tools to help us.

We stick “scratchy tickets” on each cow’s back to make it easier to see when she’s ready to mate. Okay, she’s got no chance of winning the lottery but the silver coating of these stickers gets rubbed off when other cows leap onto her back in response to her hormonal cues, revealing hot pink, yellow or orange tell tales underneath.

The results of summertime soil tests and the advice of our agronomist allow us to maximise the performance of our pastures while minimising the impact on the environment.

Knowing when silage involves crawling around the paddocks keeping a close eye on grass growth, then entering the results into a clever little “Rotation Right” spreadsheet devised by our guru friends at DEPI.

But raising calves and watching over expectant cows? That’s a whole lot of tender care, time and generations of farming knowledge (yes, yes, combined with the latest advances in science).

This is when a farmer really knows she’s alive!

Lovers behind the shelter shed

Lovers

Lovers

I was out shifting fences yesterday when, through the trees along the gully, I heard the tell-tale staccato of furtive lovers nearby. And there they were, in a hidden pocket of the paddock, him licking her flank, she still undecided.

I crept closer to take a snap and uh, oh, I’d been spotted. Like guilty teens behind the shelter shed, the pair straightened up, stared belligerently (if a little gawkily) and wanted to know what I was looking at.

What else should I expect? It is springtime, after all. Isn’t a cow entitled to a little privacy?

Dogs and ducks, genomics and designer bulls

Training working dogs with ducks

Paul McPhail training working dogs with ducks

Outside the pavilion, hundreds watched working dog trainer Paul McPhail show how young dogs are schooled herding ducks. Inside the pavilion, a small crowd lunched with researchers investigating genomic testing of bulls.

This scene from the Dairy Expo at Korumburra yesterday struck me as a really interesting statement about modern farming. It’s the meshing of age-old skills and cutting-edge science.

Zoe and I couldn’t resist watching the pups – one just four months old – rounding up the ducks. The warmth of Paul McPhail’s training and the dedication of his dogs were mesmerising. Nor could I resist the chance to find out what science will bring to our dairy farm in the next few years. One of the most interesting was the genomic testing – as distinct from genetic modification – of bulls.

Normally, bull calves are selected for breeding based on pedigree and their conformation or “type score”. Their semen is then collected and used to breed daughters, who must then get in calf so we know how fertile they are, and then be milked at age three before we know the real value of the bull as a sire.

It’s all based on observed and measured performance. On the other hand, genomic testing compares the DNA of new sires with the DNA of historically well-performing sires as a benchmark. More work needs to be done to increase the reliability of this testing but it promises a shortening of that four-year timeframe.

There is also hope that the testing will soon be affordable for mass screening of our cows. We will be able to verify the parentage of our animals and gauge their genetic merit very early on. This should “speed up” improvements in our herd with powerful animal welfare outcomes. By better selecting cows for breeding, we should be able to reduce the number that become lame, have bad udders and need to be treated for mastitis.

The scientists, who were from the DairyFutures CRC and are also working on designer forages, will help Australia’s dairy farmers remain competitive on the world stage.

Exciting stuff!

Why we don’t want huge calves like this whopper

Huge calf

Big calves are a big risk

This calf was born yesterday and, sadly, survived only a few minutes, leaving his poor mother exhausted. Having sat her up, Wayne and Zoe are giving her a dose of sugars, calcium and mineral salts to give her a boost after her ordeal. Big calves tend to cause a lot of calving trouble and are also often stillborn. We’ve had a few this year, which I think is partly due to the wonderful condition of the cows.

We do actively try to keep the size of calves manageable in other ways. When we are selecting bulls for our herd, we look for those who have a record of easy calvings (though not too easy in case we end up breeding cows with hopelessly tiny pelvises) and those of medium stature. We don’t want to breed giants and internationally, Holsteins have been getting bigger and bigger.

As well as the calving ease, our desire for medium-sized cows is about fitness. Most of the semen originates from lines bred in America and Europe, where cows live in barns most of the time and walk very little while, here in Australia, our cows live out in the paddocks all year round.

I think they have better lives as a result but the downside (if you can call it that) is that they must be fit enough to walk from the paddock to the dairy and back twice a day. Massive bodies are hard on feet and legs.