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The importance of record-keeping in mastitis control

Tamara Scully Published on 29 May 2015

Dairy producers are familiar with taking precautions to reduce mastitis infection. Maintaining cow cleanliness and comfort, utilizing best practices during milking, closely monitoring somatic cell counts, establishing and following protocols for infected cows, and culling judiciously are all tools for decreasing the impact of mastitis in dairy herds.

If this is all you are doing, however, you’ve overlooked the most effective tool in mastitis control: record-keeping.

“The real reason to keep records is to compare yourself to your recent history,” Michael Capel, DVM, said. “Disease doesn’t occur randomly,” but rather is the result of changes that have occurred on the farm.

Unless records are kept, there is no way to correlate those changes with the appearance of mastitis issues. Records allow producers to “make evidence-based decisions and evaluate thoroughly every decision we make on the farm,” he emphasized.

Capel was one of three presenters addressing the importance of keeping detailed dairy records during the Cornell Cooperative Extension PRO-Dairy Milk Quality Meetings held earlier this year.

Three meetings, each highlighting different milk quality improvement topics as related to mastitis management, were broadcast via video-conferencing to viewing locations across the state.

Capel recommended that a farm log or journal be kept where any changes made at the farm are consistently recorded, preferably by a single dedicated person.

Modifications in teat dip, milking equipment, herd changes, employee changes and procedural changes would all be included. Records should also be kept on each cow, noting diet, behaviours, stage of lactation, milk production and more.

Records of the weather and of environmental concerns (like muddy conditions), as well as any unusual activity or occurrences, can prove valuable when assessing factors that may have had an impact on mastitis rates.

Keeping records allows effective management decisions to be made. For example, records can help link a change in feed to a change in production or help determine if a new supplement has had any effect on herd health.

They can also show that new mastitis increased when a change in bedding occurred. This helps producers make better conclusions, resulting in better decision-making.

“We’re going to have a disease outbreak at a certain point. We have to have records to determine what went wrong and to make it right,” Capel said.

“Oftentimes, we may have three or four things going wrong. A historical record of when we make these changes, so we can evaluate how they’ve affected the farm over time,” is an extremely important tool.

Records and milk quality

When it comes to mastitis, knowing what factors are contributing to outbreaks, and whether or not treatment protocols are effective, leads to better management and higher-quality milk.

“We have to measure milk production on a regular basis. I think it is absolutely critical to record clinical mastitis,” Capel said. “Within your farm, you should all agree what a consistent definition of mastitis is.”

The bulk tank SCC, individual cow SCC, mastitis culture information and whether there is a new mastitis case or a second occurrence should all be logged.

Dwight Bruno, DVM, from the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets said that most dairy producers are already using Dairy Comp or a similar computer program, and these programs can be further utilized to easily look at collected data in a variety of ways.

Savvy users can sort data to look at mastitis outcomes, first-time cases, mastitis within a given group, “cured” populations and more.

Using these computer programs wisely allows producers to generate graphs and charts to help compare mastitis over time and within segments of the herd.

First-time mastitis cases can be compared against your logbook to see what changes preceded the development of mastitis. Producers can also input farm protocols for mastitis treatment and can track the outcomes of these protocols.

“There are multiple different ways of looking at culture results and clinical mastitis,” Capel said. The goal is to “build a picture of risk factors” and assess what is working to prevent, as well as what may be triggering, mastitis cases. “Give thought to what it is you want to evaluate.”

Beyond mastitis

While good records can be evaluated and used to reduce mastitis occurrence and determine effective treatment protocols, records are also important when treating animals with drugs for any reason. Bruno discussed drug treatment residue concerns with PRO-Dairy participants.

Because the use of drugs in animal agriculture is highly regulated, producers need to keep records to guard against any issues with drug residues found in milk or meat.

In the U.S., dairy cows account for 44 percent of the drug residue violations found in a 2010 study, which looked at incidents in 42 states.

Bob veal accounted for 48 percent of violations in the same study. Bulk tank milk antibiotic residues, on the other hand, have declined since 1998, with only 0.014 percent of bulk milk tankers testing positive for residues in 2014, Bruno said.

Most of the drug residue violations – somewhere around 85 percent – being found in food today come from improper drug withholding times. And most residues are coming from beef – primarily dairy beef.

Dairy producers often don’t realize the withholding period for meat is longer than for milk and send cull cows out too soon. The most common residues found were neomycin and sulfa drugs.

Keeping detailed records of drug administration can help producers demonstrate that a mistake was made and that they were not acting criminally. Lack of treatment records is a big factor in many of the mistakes made, and inaccurate data is frowned upon.

“Good records and good documentation goes a long way,” Bruno said. “Records need to be written.”

Include the drug name, the dosage, the animal, the person administering the drug, the mode of administration, the frequency, the duration of treatment and the drug withholding time.

These treatment protocols are not only necessary to defend yourself against any accusations of wrongdoing but also to assist with monitoring your herd health and management issues over time.

Keeping records is the best way to evaluate your management. Having consistent data available to reference is critical for dairy farmers who want to better manage their herds.

Whether utilizing computer programs or recording detailed information in a log book – or most effectively, a bit of both – dairy farmers can learn to interpret the data and make evidence-based decisions regarding mastitis prevention and treatments.

Improving mastitis management protocols, and increasing milk quality, depends upon interpreting facts.

“Use the records that you keep,” Bruno said. “They are extremely valuable.”  PD

Visit the PRO-DAIRY Program website for additional milk quality resources.

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food systems topics.

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