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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care November 2011

Hi Folks,

As many of us just weathered a very rare snow storm at the end of October and are still feeling some of its effects, it brings to mind to continue the conversation about issues associated with indoor housing during the winter. This month I want to focus on udder health since milk quality is always of concern anytime with dairy animals – especially those indoors.

Looking back a couple years at a presentation given by Dr. Linda Tikofsky to the National Organic Standards Board during the Pasture Symposium in State College, PA, one study showed that the percentage of cows freshening with SCC of more than 300,000 is highest from December through April while the percent of cows freshening with SCC more than 300,000 being lowest during the pasture season. In a 4-year study of pasture and confinement systems, authored by Dr. Steve Washburn from NC State, confined cows had more clinical mastitis than pastured cows (Washburn et al. 2002. J Dairy Sci.). Back in 1992, a study in Vermont of 15 Vermont dairies that had monthly bulk tank cultures and whose records were monitored over a year showed that grazed herds had lower total bacteria counts than confined herds during grazing season (Goldberg et al. 1992. J Dairy Sci.). And in a study from Norway, of 4256 1st lactation heifers with mastitis compared to 67,072 without mastitis - it was found that heifers on pasture were at lower risk for clinical mastitis than confined heifers. None of these studies looked at certified organic herds specifically, just herds that were grazing or not.  These studies showed that when cows are out on pasture, milk quality tends to be improved in general.

But now we are going to off pasture and inside. How best can we keep udder health and milk quality good and achieve quality premiums? There are a couple basic rules of milking cows that apply whether organic or conventional. These may sound very familiar but sometimes a reminder can help when factors beyond our control change – like the seasons and associated weather.

As any dairy farmer knows, milking clean and dry teats is critical. Clean not just on the length of the teat you can easily see, but especially right at the teat end where the sphincter opens and closes to the outside world. This is the first port of entry for any unwanted dirt and bacteria. Bacteria love moisture, so it is truly critical to not have damp or wet teats when the milking machine or hand milking begins, as bugs will invisibly move about, with some gaining entrance into the teat canal where a reaction with the animal’s immune defenses will take place. This will cause higher somatic cell count and possibly clinical mastitis, depending how strongly the cow’s immune system reacts to the invader. It goes without saying that good lighting is needed at udder level. If area lights are somewhat distant or dim, it can be difficult to make sure the teats and teat ends are truly clean and dry. Bright lighting especially at the udder level is essential. Consider wearing one of those battery powered LED lights that can be worn on the head if needed.

Wearing gloves is not well liked by everyone but the smooth surface of gloves don’t allow bacteria to find a hiding spot and will help minimize germ transfer from cow to cow. Gloves can be washed easily between cows if they become dirty. Skin of the hands, however, offer excellent landing areas for bacteria to stay until the next cow is prepared for milking, when they can be rubbed off onto the next cow’s teats.

In a study that I did with Penn State Extension in Lancaster County in 2006, DHIA data and farm responses to a survey showed that wearing gloves was associated with significantly less somatic cell counts compared to herds not wearing gloves. In the same study, pre-dipping was also associated with significantly less somatic cell counts compared to herds that did not pre-dip.

Wearing gloves, by the way, will reduce those painful fingertip cracks that are so common during the winter time. And those painful fingertip cracks happen to be a great areas for bacteria to lodge – especially Staph aureus. And it’s those same fingertips which are prepping the next cow to milk, right?

Don’t forget the milking machines and the liners themselves. If many cows have teat ends that have little rings at the ends of each teat, then the cows are either being milked too long or there is too much vacuum fluctuation during milking time. Those rings harbor bugs. By making sure cows start milking within 60 seconds of preparation, 95% of your cows will be finished milking in about 3-4 minutes. Machine milking can be very irritating to cows if the machines aren’t functioning properly, regardless of make or model. Many factors go into udder health – clean and dry teats, clean and dry hands, pre-and post dipping, milk out time, and the machines themselves. 

Thinking back to the pasture studies mentioned earlier, the common theme is that cows being grazed had essentially better milk quality. Then what was it about those cows housed continually indoors? While I’m not certain, I would probably include damp bedding as a main culprit leading to decreased udder health. And as those of you who know my writings by now, dry bedding is once again a key ingredient in maintaining good health – in this instance for udder health.

If SCC is becoming a problem, as it always is if it gets above 400,000 (the cut off limit by most organic milk processors), then it’s time to get to the bottom of the problem. The usual method I recommend is to look at your DHIA sheets and identify all cows that have a linear SCC (LSCC) of 5 or higher, then use a CMT paddle to identify the quarter(s) that are positive to the CMT fluid, then take a milk sample and have it cultured to see which bug/germ might be responsible. If not on DHIA, then you should be running a CMT on your herd every month to stay on top of which animals may be contributing to any SCC problems. You simply cannot effectively deal with udder health issues without knowing what bug(s) may be involved. Sure, you may have a favorite remedy to treat cows with, but little by little, especially if there is a contagious bug like Staph aureus or Strep ag, your herd udder health will continually be a battle, resulting in more clinical mastitis flare-ups. Once you eventually do look into the problem, those bugs might have set up shop in the udder to such an extent that really drastic measures may be your only hope. Using foresight, remaining aware and employing a careful milking technique will always lead to better outcomes than simply doing things the same old way and hoping they’ll miraculously get better. Sure miracles do happen, but you’ll probably enjoy milking your cows more even if it means you’ve got to make some changes to your current routine. I’ve heard some folks say in the past “But they don’t prep the cows at all in New Zealand – they just stick on the milker”. If everything is fine – great, don’t make any changes! But if you are having milk quality problems, remember to get back to basics. When it comes to milking routines and milking hygiene, conventional wisdom really has its place, even on organic dairies.


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