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Battling the bugs, saving the drugs!!!

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Investigating clinical mastitis


I was on farm yesterday to investigate a problem with ongoing clinical mastitis. This was driven by a young farmer not happy with the number of cows he was treating or his antibiotic usage over the last 12 months.

You will have a varying amount of knowledge going into any of these cases, to be fair in this one all I knew there was a problem and some form of solution required. I remember for many years these cases always baffled me, where do I even start?

Now I have a fairly simple approach that usually achieves results. This case was interesting as the farm in question is putting a big emphasis on reducing its antibiotic usage particularly through better management. This is not just ‘lip service’ to a challenge, but a real want or desire to change.

So I always start with an idea of measuring where the farm is at? A rolling SCC of about 180,000, no measuring of clinical case rate, ‘a few culls’ every year for mastitis and one dead cow last spring from toxic mastitis. A look through the drugs register indicated a possible clinical case rate of 40/cases per 100 cows in the year. There seemed to be high incidence in the first 30 days also.

There was no cultures, but the history and somatic cell count indicated we were looking at environmental pathogens. Also not unlike many other farms it seemed to be an issue in early lactation. No obvious groups affected such as heifers or older cows.


So with this in mind I set about at auditing the risk factors for environmental mastitis. I start at this very point the environment. Knowing that the bugs that cause the clinical problems are in the faeces often I look at bottlenecks where high levels of faecal contamination can occur first.

The dry cows and freshly calved cows were in cubicles so that is where I started. These bacteria like wet, damp and mucky conditions so that is what I was trying to find. How often were udders coming in contact with wet mucky and damp conditions?

Next thing is I pay attention to the cows themselves, I do a random sample of hygiene scores. This is my scoring system, which allows be compare what I consider normal for time of the year and being housed etc.

Score legs, arsses and udders 1-5….

Then I look at teats (ideally in the parlour, score suppleness and teat ends).

Finally I look at factors that might be effecting the immunity of the cows.

This is a three pronged approach.

The environment (how dirty the cows are and why?)

The physical defences of the cow (teat)

The immunity of the herd.

Now of course this audit can take up to 2 hours, but it allows me be systematic in my approach.

It is also important to look at this around milking time. With all these problems I look at the day in the life of a freshly calved cow. (for example what does 24 hours look like)

Collecting yard, milking parlour, exit to feed space, house, lying in cubicles and return to the repeat the process. Looking at the day in the life is useful way of spotting bottlenecks or problems. Always focusing on the fact cows are slow moving species of prey that love consistency.

A big part of all my audits has now become assessing cow behaviour and comfort. Calm and happy cows is the name of the game (cow flow can tell me a lot about how content cows are!!!)


However all that science and auditing is fine, the most important piece then follows. The communication piece and changing behaviours.

Some of the issues in this farm included,

  1. Cubicle space was tight (cubicles per cow) and smaller than id like. This was probably leading to cows being a bit dirtier. Their dung was quiet loose at herd level particularly in the freshly calved cows. Dry cow accommodation left a bit to be desired and also close up fresh straw pens could be an issue. We discussed, moving neck rail up higher to allow cows to lie down better in the cubicles.
  2. The teat ends were ok but teats themselves were a bit dry! Milking routine was good as you would expect with me in the pit!!!
  3. Cow’s faeces was quiet loose and we may have energy issues in first 30 days. Some metritis and small % of freshly calved cows were thin. Dry cows were in good BCS. Silage quality may be an issue with energy and also leading to loose faeces. Cows were very calm and happy entering leaving the milking parlour.
  4. From the history there seemed to be an issue with mastitis in first 2 weeks. We also discussed hygiene and transition management in the herd. There was also some detailed discussion about drying off procedures on farm.

We first had to agree with my finding s and once we did that work towards some actions that were doable. Accommodation in short term we agreed to clean up some bottlenecks and long term works towards a better housing system for transitioning cows. Silage quality was to be tested. We changed the teat dip to something with more emollient. We are going to predip while cows are housed full time.

Cubicles are now going to get more attention and cubicle lime is going to be used more frequently. We looked at altering cubicle size to improve lying time and lying position.

We drew up 5 actions which included predipping cows and certainly one pager on prepping the udder of every dirty cow/heifer (only very dirty cows get washed).

We picked a review date and sent the report to his own vet, who had requested the workup. Now we will need to measure clinical cases over the next 60 days then move to 6 month reviews of figures.

Now I have over simplified the investigation but it does highlight some important things

  1. We can really reduce antibiotic usage by focusing on a strategic management approach particularly around hygiene
  2. Problems are often multifactorial and seldom have in the bottle solutions (on their own).
  3. The health of the teat is critical to reduce infections.
  4. The value of good communication, someone will only change often when they are willing to admit things can be better first themselves.
  5. The need to create accountability is really important for progress and repeat visits to monitor performance works well.

So over the coming weeks when

The environment is cleaner, possibly improving comfort (cubicles)

Cows receive predip while indoors

Change teat dip for better nurturing qualities of teat skin.

Record clinical cases, perform some cultures to check what pathogens are present. Also review treatment failure etc


These actions if performed consistently should see an improvement in overall milk quality performance. There is some significant work also to look at managing the transition diet better. Some tests and advice have been carried out in this area.

I feel we won’t always be able to reach for the tube or the next injections as a mastitis solution, we must be thinking of a more proactive long term approach. To do this we must first recognise there is an issue and have the desire to change for the better.


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