Troubleshooting mastitis and milk quality problems

Carole Curtis
The right milking equipment, working properly and properly maintained, plays a powerful role in a dairy farm's success. Photo by Carole Curtis.

FT. ATKINSON - Some dairy herds have few cases of mastitis, while others deal with many cases. 

Dr. Paul Virkler, D.V.M., Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, sorted out some differences and detailed how farmers can evaluate their dairy, looking for opportunities to prevent this costly disease.

He spoke during  Hoard's Dairyman's December webinar, which was co-sponsored by Steve Larson, HD, and Mike Hutjens, University of Illinois, and sponsored by Acumen Detection.

An ideal strategy for milking center improvement starts with identifying the key players in the farm's milk quality team, including the veterinarian, nutritionist and milk inspector. Encourage communication and sharing of pertinent data between the parties.

"We have found it's very effective to hold farm meetings to interpret all that data together and identify specific opportunity areas for your farm," Virkler said.

A milk center evaluation program can provide the milk quality team with a robust set of data that can be used to identify opportunity areas to improve milk quality.

Clarify if the particular opportunity area is at the whole system level, the individual personnel management level, or a combination of both, Virkler advised. After a change is made, re-assess the relevant areas to document the effects of the change.

Repeat the data collection every three to four months to develop a trend line, prevent disasters from happening, promote continuous improvement and assess changes.

Measurements count

Mastitis is affected by many variables, ranging from unit alignment and pulsation under load to teat end cleanliness and environmental conditions. Measure where the farm stands in terms of equipment, people and cows by performing a full National Milk Council (NMC) evaluation if it has been six months or longer since the previous one, Virkler advised.

"It is unbelievable that some dairies have not had an accurate assessment," he commented.

In his experience, the milking system  issues that show up routinely are inappropriate claw vacuum and pulsation settings, inappropriate automatic take-off settings, equipment not functioning properly, and poor unit alignment.

On one farm, for instance, 20 percent of pulsators were not functioning on one side of a double 12 flat barn parlor, putting 120 cows at risk of teat damage on every milking.

Virkler urged farmers to have pulsation parameters measured and make sure they are appropriate for the herd. Put someone in management responsible for evaluation of ATO settings, making changes and confirming that the computerized change reaches the stall point.

To keep equipment functioning properly, scheduled maintenance is a must.

"It needs to happen," Virkler underlined. Internal is fine, as long as it is done and done correctly, but external maintenance adds another set of eyes. Either way, the findings need to be communicated, which can be a function of the team meetings.

Virkler champions the use of a pre-milking checklist. It can be used to record system vacuum, check that liners are pulsating and properly aligned in the shell, open all claw/liner vents with appropriate tool, listen for any air leaks, and check for any torn hoses, gaskets, etc.

"And, certainly, make sure that milkers have access to replacement supplies," he added. 

A communication protocol should be set up for equipment issues, including  how milkers are to notify management, who in management is responsible for fixing the issue, and setting the priority and time frame to resolution.

Virkler prefers a written, permanent log, allowing clear documentation of the problem and the steps toward resolution.

"I think this is a big area we can work on - make sure we have communication on the issues, get the dealership  there and document fixing the issue," he said.

Especially on larger dairies, a checklist with signoff can help ensure someone in management is checking critical areas on a regular basis, and make sure someone is monitoring the error reports out of the parlor management software.

Additional opportunities

Another common opportunity area is excessive water use on the parlor deck. As the cows exit, workers spray the deck manure away, sometimes splashing manure water toward the cows with open teat ends.

"We see this a lot," Virkler said.

Improper laundering of towels is also problematic. Make sure towels are clean by using sufficient hot water, controlling wash load size, and using chlorine in the rinse cycle if the towels are not dried.

Teat skin condition is another challenge. There are large differences between herds, Virkler said, and many have problems lasting through the summer.

 Dry skin is prone to cracking, and the cracks lead to severe issues.

"In terms of skin condition, dry skin is one of the most common causes of open lesions that we see," Virkler shared.

Inconsistent milking routines area also problematic.

"A well-executed milking routine that is consistent day-to-day is the critical backbone of mastitis prevention," Virkler said.  "There is a constant need for review and retraining of the milking staff."