Dairy farmers should beware of jumping on the latest trend in order to cure high cell counts and mastitis, as they may be overlooking the main sources of their problem. That was the main message to come out of the DairyCo and Farmers Guardian Mastitis Clinic at the Dairy Event last month.
"Before leaping in and spending a fortune on the latest bit of kit which may not help at all, investigate the problem and find a definitive answer," says Hugh Black, extension officer with DairyCo. "There are lots of people out there who would like to sell you a solution, but the answer could in fact lie in some extremely simple and low-cost changes. "For example, farmers often ask me about switching to sand bedding or installing a cluster flush system, but the main source of their problem could be in a completely different place.
"Cubicle beds could be poorly managed; bedding could be getting damp in storage; or cows could be leaking milk in cubicles which puts them at risk of environmental infections. "Sand will be no substitute for poor cubicle management, and whatever bedding you use, you may simply need to improve your cubicle cleansing."
Similarly, he suggests that something as simple as changing milking intervals - from say 10 and 14 hours to 11 and 13 hours - could reduce milk leakage and the consequent exposure to environmental pathogens. "A lot of infection originates in the dry period," adds Mr Black, "and issues such as bedding in dry cow housing or in calving pens may also need to be addressed."
Recommending the DairyCo Mastitis Control Plan as the best way to start, he says this has been developed over the past five years by world-leaders in mastitis who are now training vets and consultants in the delivery of the plan. "We started rolling out the plan in April 2009 and there are now 114 professionals who are trained in its use covering every area of mainland Britain," says Mr Black. "This means that there is bound to be a vet or consultant who is prepared to travel to your farm and take the first steps in identifying the issues.
"The plan initially involves a visit and diagnosis based on the incidence of clinical mastitis, data from milk recording and milk bacteriology from infected quarters. This is followed by a questionnaire which takes little more than an hour of the farmer's time and covers every area of the farm from health and nutrition to pasture management and stocking density.
"From this, an action plan will be produced for the farm which identifies measures to address," says Mr Black. "It's not at all overwhelming as it takes small steps at a time, but highlights the things that have been identified as this farm's priorities which will have the greatest impact.
"Ongoing monitoring then becomes important as mastitis is a fluid situation. As one problem is addressed another is likely to increase in importance, and the plan is about identifying new priorities and keeping things on an even keel.
"This is about control rather than eradication as mastitis is not going to go away, so ongoing monitoring and change are an important part of the process. There's no point in going through the process if you are not prepared to change, as even the very best herds have to work hard to stay at the top."