Quality milk is all about teamwork

Ronald Erskine, DVM, PhD
College of Veterinary Medicine
Michigan State University

Preventing mastitis rests on a simple fundamental concept: reduce the exposure of the teat end to microbes.

This is the common denominator for an effective mastitis control program in a dairy herd, whether it is:

  • maintaining cows in a clean dry environment,
  • applying proper pre-milking procedures,
  • teat dipping cows after milking,
  • ensuring milking equipment is in proper functioning order, or
  • aseptically preparing teat ends before administration of intramammary infusions.

Likewise, mastitis therapy decisions should be straightforward. Pick your fights carefully and, when treatment is indicated, administer the drugs based on sound pharmacologic principles.

Challenges in managing people

018Despite the apparent simplicity of the goals of mastitis prevention and therapy, differences in the consistency of applying protocols over time is what separates dairy herds with highly successful quality milk programs from herds that are marginally successful. One of the bigger differences today is that the on-farm labor force has expanded beyond family members and neighbors toward more paid employees. The more people in the team, the higher the probability that “protocol drift” increases as well, which means standards decline.

Human nature is such that drift from prescribed protocols is common, especially when people are rushed for time or under pressure to enhance productivity. Milk quality and farm productivity are not mutually exclusive. However, research has suggested that dairy producers who are clean and precise in their approach to managing the herd have less mastitis than herds where management practices are more hurried (Barkema, et al., 1999).

Is “protocol drift” solely an employee problem? Like a basketball team, is the success or failure of players on the court solely a function of their abilities? Or is it also a function of the preparation instilled by their coach?

Many dairy producers are very good “cow people,” skilled in applying their knowledge of feed, shelter, environmental stewardship, equipment, and most of all, animal husbandry to their enterprise every day of the year. But how about employee coaching? How well have employees been included in the herd game plan?

In terms of milking procedures, who trains the employees? How often are they re-trained? Are they given the right tools for the job such as ensuring proper coverage of teats with a germicide after milking?

Do people milking the cows know and understand the basics of mastitis prevention? Do people milking the cows understand the importance of proper milk letdown, the problems with over-milking cows, or how to look for signs of a unit with a pulsator that may not be functioning correctly?

Do people who clean the stalls and alleys know and understand the basics of mastitis prevention? Is there a dedicated schedule of employee meetings to review and discuss performance and goals of the farm relative to quality milk? Are employees aware of somatic cell and bacteria counts on the farm? Perhaps most importantly, who is the dedicated quality milk coach for the farm?

Veterinarians as “sciences officers” & coaches

Mastitis remains the largest single cause of antibiotic use in adult dairy cattle in the United States. Although marked progress has been made in implementing prudent drug use on dairy farms and reducing the incidence of marketed milk with drug residues, the dairy industry needs to remain committed to supplying the public with a safe, wholesome food supply.

Mastitis therapy protocols, developed in conjunction with a veterinarian, are the key to preventing drug residues in milk or meat. However, protocols are only useful if everyone on the farm complies 100% of the time. Whether in farms with no employees, or in farms where employees are part of the treatment team, frequent training and review of drug therapy protocols and proper drug administration are critical.

If the protocol states that mastitis cows are to be treated for only three doses, then everyone on the farm has to stay with the plan. If the protocol states that teat ends must be completely cleaned with alcohol before infusion, then this needs to be monitored and reviewed regularly. This is where the herd veterinarian, as the “science officer” for the herd, can help review and train farm personnel, and re-train, and re-train, etc.

Would a winning basketball coach demonstrate positioning for a rebound to the players just once on the first day of practice and then not revisit this technique for the rest of the entire season? Would a winning coach expect players to perform their part in an offensive play without understanding why they are doing it?

Just like in basketball, we shouldn’t expect optimum performance from our employee team if herd managers aren’t seeking to be good coaches. This applies to all aspects of a herd quality milk program, milking, cleaning, feeding, vaccinations, and therapeutic protocols.

Barkema, H.W., et al. 1999. J. Dairy Sci, 82:1655-1663.

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