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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care March 2013

Hi Folks,

The warming weather and associated dampness has had me treating coliform mastitis lately - so this month’s newsletter will focus on the causes, prevention and treatment of this very frustrating problem that pops up at times. The infrequent nature of coliform mastitis lends itself to not spending much time and energy in thinking about it. And in a sense, simply by maintaining excellent daily milking procedures and udder hygiene, coliform mastitis is normally prevented.

Most times, it’s the fresh cows which seem to come down with this problem. Why might this be? Perhaps the most important factor is the naturally occurring immune suppression of cows preparing to calve and those which have recently calved – basically for 2 weeks on either side of calving. Cows are simply more susceptible to infectious problems during this time. Add in the usual decrease in daily dry matter intake (lack of “groceries”) combined with the immense demands placed on the entire system due to rapid increase in milk production and problems can quickly get out of hand. This is especially so with coliform mastitis since the bugs causing the problem double themselves every 20 minutes. That’s the internal angle.

What about the environment the cow is in? Coliform bugs can be anywhere in the environment – manure, bedding and water. It’s just the way it is. Using bedding materials which are inert is helpful: sand is the best. In the middle is probably straw, which usually doesn’t cause much in the way of coliform mastitis problems in my experience. At the bad end is sawdust: if damp for any reason it can cause major flare-ups. Sawdust is the most common bedding I see associated with coliform mastitis. I have also seen a horrible outbreak with ground peanut hulls years ago - it was advertised to lower somatic cell count but upon laboratory analysis it had zillions of klebsiella-type coliforms! Of course there’s also mattresses, which by themselves are inert and don’t tend not to cause any problem. But without timely pulling back of manure and urine puddles, coliform mastitis is more likely to occur. Adding very fine limestone (calcium carbonate) to any commonly used bedding material can help to change the pH and reduce coliforms.

Back to the cows – aside from the general immune suppression they experience around calving, why else might a cow contract coliform mastitis? Answer: contact time with teat end and its direct environment is a major factor. Cows lying down for longer than normal will be more easily in contact with bacteria in their bedding environment. Such cows will likely be older cows - those weakened by metabolic problems (milk fever or slight milk fever). They are slow or cannot rise. Such an animal will also have slower teat sphincter closing time – and may be actively leaking milk with her teats in direct contact with bedding materials. This is why many hot coliform mastitis cases seem to be in recently fresh, older animals. Worse is when a weak older cow has trouble getting up and steps on her teat end, even in a very minor way – this almost always causes mastitis of various sorts. However, a first calf heifer that is paralyzed may also have a chance of getting coliform mastitis since her teats are spending more time on potentially infected bedding materials.

Not cleaning off the cows’ teats properly during milking time can be a cause as well – that’s why it’s so important to not only look at the length of the teats to be clean but also the teat ends themselves to be clean – not a speck of dirt should be seen on the actual teat end where milk comes out. Dipping the cows prior to and after milking can greatly decrease the possibility of bad germs getting into the teat canal as well.

With good milking and stall bedding hygiene, the potential of getting coliform mastitis is vastly decreased – and fortunately these things are generally done on a daily basis. So a main prevention technique should be making sure that older cows are treated quickly for low calcium (milk fever) and that heifers are treated quickly for any calving paralysis issues. Remember that “milk fever” can occur not just at freshening but also anytime an older cow may go off feed or have scours for a day (for whatever reason).

Prevention certainly can include vaccination with the J-5® or J-Vac® vaccines (follow label instructions). The best time to vaccinate is near the end of the lactation period as this will cover the animal through the dry period into freshening, as well as provide enhanced colostrum antibodies for the calf. However, these do not guarantee zero cases. But if a vaccinated animal does contract coliform mastitis, the symptoms of the disease will be dramatically reduced. In my experience, an un-vaccinated animal will be completely off-feed with 104º fever and rock hard quarter with watery secretion; whereas a vaccinated animal will be slightly off-feed with a low fever (102.6-103º) and a swollen quarter with dilute white milk. In a 40-50 cow herd, one hot coliform mastitis case is bad enough, but if two or more were to occur in a year, it would have paid off to vaccinate the entire herd. Treatment of a case of coliform mastitis is costly and there is no sure bet how an animal will recover systemically and whether she will be 3 or 4-teated or how good her production may resume.

Treatment is possible but time is of the essence: the sooner the treatment the better the possibility of recuperation. While this is true in any condition, it’s especially true in hot coliform mastitis. Treatment should be initiated within the first few hours that symptoms are detected –when fever is high, the quarter is throbbing, and the secretion is just beginning to be watery. Once the cow starts with diarrhea and/or is down and/or has a normal temperature after the initial signs, the window of effective treatment has been missed because now endotoxins are damaging the cow’s entire system. When this is happening, the tiny little red veins in the whites of the eyes will appear more prominent and the deep blue pupil of the eyes will be “dime-slit” – like the edge of a dime.

When I used to treat conventional cows, I found a combination of 100cc oxytetracycline (200mg/ml), 15cc flunixin and 20cc dexamethasone mixed in a bottle of dextrose given IV worked quite well on fresh cows (not pregnant). With organic cows, I find using 250cc of antibodies and anti-toxins as provided in commercial products like Bovi-Sera®, Multi-serum®, Bo-Bac-2X®, PolySerum® and Quatracon® to be effective, along with a dose of ImmunoBoost®, and 2 bottles of vitamin C (125 grams) – all given IV. Flunixin can be used with organic cows. Organic or conventional, a bottle of calcium (electrolytes) to an older cow and/or a bottle of hypertonic saline (electrolytes) can be helpful. 

It seems that the transitioning time of winter to spring allows the bugs that were frozen to come alive again, thus making it tricky to manage freshening cows. By paying attention to detail and pouncing on any situation where actual symptoms are starting to show themselves, coliform problems can be minimized.

For Bovinity Health, information on functional alternatives to antibiotics see:

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