Farming Tips and Advice – Videos and Blogs from Tommy the Vet

There is something about Mary

Something about Mary

As her gloved hand stripped out the teat, her worst fears realised. Instead of the lovely white milk she is so used to, a series of clots and watery milk hit the parlour floor. Mary (not her real name) couldn’t believe it, this was now a real problem. In less than a week she had more mastitis than all of the previous lactation (11 months). To make it worse this week was better than the week before.

When you love your cows this hurts, of course there is the financial pain of lost milk, treatments and more. But mastitis is a painful condition and when you do everything right for your cows it is so frustrating to see it happen. I got that sense of frustration the first time we discussed the problem. Farmers know that feeling, when you do everything right and still problems occur. This is farming I guess, the unpredictable lifestyle in the hands of the gods, the weather, the corporates and an ever-discerning consumer (depending who you ask of course).

The first few cases were treated as normal, with the growing numbers treatments changed and the problem persisted. As the weeks rolled on, by week 3 the bulk tank somatic cell count was at a place it never had been before. 290 thousand with 69 cows calved, a rolling average last year was 80K. To Mary it felt like the wheels were coming off the bus.

More antibiotics in the medicines book in 3 weeks than the previous 3 years and a quivering voice on the phone of utter frustration.

Now you could eat your lunch off the floor of Marys milking parlour. Its treated like a food factory (which it is), everything done right. The routine was perfect, in fact some would consider it over the top. So why now had she lost control?

She hadn’t lost control, the only mistake she made was not to take two steps back instead of one or possibly fifteen forward? She needed to take a few deep breaths! Disease whether mastitis or anything else is usually a function of a flaw in the system. That delicate ecosystem around calving is even more complex. These metabolic athletes (modern dairy cows) must do much to get things right. Ultimately, we manage them so it is up to us when we see problems to find the bottlenecks that as they arise and cause problems.

When I arrived on farm the mastitis problem had since been sorted. A quick run through on the phone of protocol changes and some simple actions around isolation of cases and treatments. I have always found in bad mastitis cases always you need to determine what’s happening by recording or CMT testing on every cow. Step back look at the results and then build a plan step by step.

I was delighted the bulk tank SCC was back at 70k and only one new clinical case! That is always the beauty of an external set of eyes to revert back to simple routines and put some actions in place. So why? Did the wheels come off the bus? Well on questioning Mary some more I wanted to find out what was the trigger for all this clinical mastitis.

To me clinical mastitis problems are breakdown in one of three areas, an increase in shit (bacteria) in the environment, teat end damage or immunity problems with the cow and udder. It was easy see Mary wasn’t having issues with hygiene or it wasn’t teat end damage. So, what happened cows immunity less than a week into calving?

“Bingo” that feeling when you put pieces of a jigsaw together and you start to make out the picture. Milk fever, and lots of it unfortunately, four cases in one weekend and also more metritis than normal. A quick look at the dry cow diet and we were starting to really see where things went wrong. A good dry cow mineral and this year a new “super-duper” dry cow mineral block as well!!!

it’s funny we love supplements in this country and this was a case of killing with kindness. A quick glance at the minerals and the mineral analysis of the silage and we had an unbalanced equation. Marys cows were getting far too much calcium in the precalving diet. This was actually causing the milk fever or low blood calcium in her cows.

Low blood calcium affects muscle function, immune function (white cell production decreases) and is an iceberg disease.



What? Sure, milk fever is lack of calcium, doesn’t it make since to give the cow plenty before calving to stop it happening.

That is a big no! extra calcium precalving shuts down a very important mechanism a dairy cow has for coping with the huge calcium demands around calving and all that milk production. She sends a signal to her bone to release calcium into the bloodstream to supplement that which she gets from her diet.

Too much calcium, too much potassium or too little magnesium can all affect this precalving. Lesson learned review the dry cow diet and forage analysis next year and make more strategic supplementation decisions.

Job well done I suppose and Mary is content, but wait there is something about Mary? Too often that is exactly what I do, scratch the surface look at problems and hopefully solve them quickly. This day was slightly different, I found it hard to stay on task and focus. There was something about this lady that was starting to fascinate me. Anyone who knows me, I’m the vet with a huge interest in people!!!

As we walked through her cows I saw this woman tell me how she spots lameness too early!!! “The hoof man always is giving out these cows are only barely lame or not at all” (problems spotted too early). As we talked in the field she rubbed several cow’s heads as they casually sauntered towards the boss. She was listening to my every word and with every breath a longing to be the very best. But why? But, but, but the weather…. Yes a business woman, but completely aware of the unusual echo system of living animals producing food.

When I answered what I could, to the last question I turned and said “sometimes shit just happens Mary”.  We had dwelled on the negatives for too long, there was so much working well. As we walked back to the yard I noticed the pace she moved at (with speed and purpose). In the yard again, I took note of how spotlessly clean everything was. I was invited in for a wonderful lunch where a wise mammy, myself and Mary discussed the future of farming.

As I drove away I thought about what I had just seen, really seen not the mastitis or the milk fevers. I had seen a person dedicated to her craft, with a passion and attention to detail. My final words were probably my most important, I said to Mary take a deep breath!!! Do this at least a few times an hour, don’t be so hard on yourself, “you really are an amazing farmer”.

The future of farming is uncertain at times, if farming is to have a future we must encourage the Marys of this world and tell their stories to the consumer who seems to have forgotten where their food comes from.

Maybe it’s time we started appreciating our food again! It has only taken me 14 -15 years as a practicing vet working on farms to really appreciate the story and journey of food from farm to fork.

What I am certain of is, if Mary is a representative of dairying and farming it will be ok. She embodies everything good about farming, she puts the animal at the centre of the business, she understands the needs of her cows. She takes pride in what to me is one of the most underrated professions in the world. The world needs food and Mary through her attention to detail will give us safe healthy food. I realised there is something about Mary, she is one of my new hero’s.

To all the heroes like Mary who produce our food so passionately I thank you!

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