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.

The sun is up and so is the sparky (or, the day began pear-shaped)

Dairy cows are rounded up before dawn but, today, they slept in. We had a bit of a disaster in the dairy last night that would have meant the girls missed breakfast. That certainly would not do, so while they waited for the sparky to weave his magic in the grain auger control box, this is how the cows enjoyed watching the sunrise.

Sleeping in

Sleeping in

Two hours later than normal, with steaming breath and swaddled in layers of clothes to ward off the still chilly air, the kids and I had the rare treat of a family morning round up.

Rounding up was noisier than usual, too!

Rounding up was noisier than usual, too!

The cows seemed to take it all in their stride but we are lucky this has happened late in the season when milk production is falling away. Farmers are so fastidious about rising early because a late morning milking means painfully-full udders and the risk of mastitis. Wayne took the opportunity to do a heap of other farm chores while the feed system was repaired and will milk the cows late tonight to help even things out for the cows again.

A big thank you to Dutchy the sparky for getting out of bed so early on a frosty Sunday morning. It turns out that, in dairy country, the cows rule the lives of farmers, their families and even the local electricians.

Cows having a sleep in

Is autumn really here? No, it’s coming, so cows are going

AutumnLeaf

Golden leaves carpet the farmhouse driveway. Yes, it’s autumn at last but I’m not sure whether the ash are superbly tuned into the seasons or simply too water stressed to hold onto their leaves any longer. The crisp autumnal mornings are yet to arrive – it was already 26 degrees Celsius when Alex and I checked the weather outlook just before six this morning – and the farm is again desperately dry.

But a dairy farmer is always planning ahead. Last weekend we sent a handful of cows on their annual two-month maternity leave, with a dozen or so more to join them in a fortnight.

The summer millet crops are getting their final grazing today and tomorrow so we can prepare for sowing new perennial pastures when the “autumn break” finally arrives. We’re testing the soils of each paddock so we can apply just the right levels of nutrients – enough to maintain fertility without risking leaching into the river or water table.

In anticipation of rain (and mud), our cow tracks are also about to get a makeover to help prevent two of the most troublesome afflictions for dairy cows: lameness and mastitis.

Autumn is the time when dairy farmers lay the foundations of a successful season and it’s strangely exciting. I wonder what will mark this year?

O-week for a young cow

The first member of the class of 2012 has calved and she’s lovely! To help her learn the ropes, we’ve had her with the milking herd for a couple of weeks prior to calving. The noises of the dairy are already familiar and the dinner served during milking must have been divine because she only kicked at the cups once – even though it’s the first time anyone’s handled her teats, let alone milked her.

That’s a big deal for us as farmers. A quiet cow is a happy cow and that means she lets down her milk readily and is less likely to suffer mastitis. And we are less likely to get hurt. In the dairy, we have to reach between the powerful hind legs of 550 kg cows, 500 times a day. Getting kicked can mean broken fingers, hands, arms and faces.

Anyhow, this young cow is a pretty cool customer, even when being pestered by a silly pup who wants to slurp up some delicious cow poo (never let a farm dog lick your face).

A concrete step forward ahead of winter

The entrance and exit to a dairy yard is often a miserable place. If you have an average herd of 250 cows, it gets trodden on by 1000 hoofs each day and bearing in mind that each cows weighs about 550 to 600kgs, that’s an awful lot of work. It also gets heavily “fertilised”!

Here’s how ours looked in summer.

Dairy yard entrance

Already boggy in January

I wasn’t looking forward to seeing it in winter! The rain has set in early and the feeling I have in my waters is that it’s going to be another nasty wet winter this year, so fixing up the bog-hole quickly became a high priority. Mud like this is a recipe for disaster in the form of lameness and mastitis – two things every dairy farmer tries to avoid at all costs.

Every season, we put loads of gravel in there and, every season, it seems to disappear before our eyes. I decided we had two problems: first, a concrete lip designed to force the cows to lift their hoofs, depositing the gravel back outside the yard had the twin effect of forcing each cow to step in precisely the same spot. Second, the legacy of loads and loads of gravel is that you end up building a mountain that, in our case, drained right back to the bog hole with nowhere for the water to escape.

So, we’ve taken a deep breath, got the excavator in to remove the mountain and the concreting crew in to provide a firm footing at the end of the yard.

New concrete at the end of the yard

Bog hole be gone!


Several seasoned characters have since wagged their heads, saying “You’ll only move the problem, you know…” but I don’t think it will be as bad. There’s now no need for the cows to so precisely follow in each others’ footsteps and the watery muck drains away from the track instead of into it. (Duh!) Wish us luck!

New season has us rushing around like squirrels

It’s autumn and our dairy farm is buzzing with activity before calving starts and winter sets in.

We have sent about 50 cows off to the other side of the farm for their annual two-month holidays. Before they go, they are given long-acting antibiotic therapy and teat seal to reduce the risk of mastitis when they calve.

Dry cows go on holiday

"Yay! Holidays!"

New pastures have been sown. Those (like this one) that were too rough have been fully cultivated with discs, power harrowed and rolled. This paddock has also had lime because its pH needs to be lifted a little higher. I’ll keep a photographic log of the paddock’s progress.

Newly sown paddock April 1st

Here it is, one day after sowing on April 1

We’ve invested in new stone and gravel for sections of the cow tracks and gateways.

New gravel

La la lush new gateway gravel!

And, last but not least, a new pair of boots.

New rubber boots

How long 'til the pink turns khaki?

By the way, how do you know when your boots are too tight (especially when they were too loose the day before)?
“When you can’t do what you used to do with your boots.”
“What’s that, Zoe?”
“Put your big toe on top of the toe next to it.”
Obviously!

Look at my sick dairy cows

Cows in hospital paddock

Cows in hospital paddock


These cows look fine but they’re in the hospital paddock because they have mastitis. It’s an infection of the udder that can be caused by bugs out on the farm, stress or some form of “mechanical damage”, like a bump or malfunctioning milking machines.

Sadly, it’s been a big problem for dairy farmers in southern Victoria this season. Very wet conditions are the perfect breeding ground for the bugs, which include e. coli and staph. Our cows have not been immune and the co-op’s milk testing showed up increased levels of white blood cells – a sign that the cows are fighting infections.

Our first step was to look for cows with the classic symptoms: hot, firm quarters and clots in the milk. We do this routinely but we stepped it up a notch, closely examining every single cow and her milk in one night. We found a couple of cases but not enough to explain our herd’s elevated cell counts, so there was nothing for it but to carry out a spot herd test.

To do this, we divert a little milk from each cow into sealed tubes for analysis at the lab. They tell us which cows have high cell counts but can’t identify the bugs. So, yet another sample was taken from each of the high cell count cows, frozen and couriered to yet another lab. Four days later, we have the results and vet Amy has created a treatment program for each of the cows!

They’ll stay in the hospital paddock, though, until their course of treatment is complete and the milk tests free of antibiotic residue.

Floods, bogs and mud, mud, mud

Flood 22 July

Partial view of the flood from the house this morning

The rain came…again. Yesterday, Yarram airport received 48.5mm and today, all the roads to town are closed, a third of the farm is cut off with at least another four paddocks underwater and the car is still sitting bogged in the driveway. Thankfully, the house is nice and high, so no sand bags needed (but thanks for the offer, Julie and Doug)!

Most of this is a temporary inconvenience. The good news is that the local rivers are short and empty into the sea quickly, so the roads should be open again in the next day or so. More important is the longer lasting issue of saturated pastures and muddy tracks.

Saturated pastures (they were already saturated before this jolly east coast low pressure system decided to pay us a visit) are very vulnerable. The damage done now by cows’ hooves will cause compaction of the soil so that, come summer, water will run off rather than soak in and roots will find it harder to penetrate the soil, exposing them to heat and denying them sub-surface moisture. If you’re a gardener, you’ll understand!

Muddy pastures and tracks are also a perfect recipe for lameness and mastitis, both painful conditions that are difficult and expensive to treat.

Of course, sopping wet soil is also no good for growing grass, which means we must step up our imported feed. This means more cost, long days and heavy tractors on fragile pastures.

Those weather gods need an urgent performance review so they can refocus on their KPIs!

Where there’s mud, there’s mastitis

The track with one fence moved in and one more to do

The track with one fence moved in and one more to do

“Where there’s mud, there’s money,” is the old farming adage but I’m a bit of a contrarian. Where there’s too much mud, there’s also lameness and mastitis.

Muddy tracks to and from the dairy hit cows with a double whammy: they soften the hoof and then coat it with the perfect breeding ground for nasty bugs. It’s heart-breaking to see a cow hobble along, so we rest lame cows and, if their hoofs become infected, treat them with antibiotics.

Mud also contributes to mastitis, a painful infection that afflicts cows and women alike. Dairy farmers have been tackling mastitis for decades from practically every angle. We can choose sires based on the resistance of their daughters to mastitis, have learned that being quiet around cows makes them less prone to infection and developed new detection and treatment techniques. We know exactly how much mastitis is in the herd: the milk processors give us daily test results as part of their stringent milk quality standards and if our milk shows evidence of too much mastitis, we are paid less.

Dairy Australia’s web site offers some great tips on combatting both lameness and mastitis. One of the recommendations is to get cow tracks in order.

Ours aren’t bad but they could be better. One 400 metre section in particular has the fences set too far back from the gravel of the track and some cows like to walk along the sides, which quickly turn to slosh. Today, we’re moving the fences in. It’s a pretty simple job that should save us a lot of grief when winter comes.