New systems and tools available to help detect mastitis faster

Boehringer Ingelheim
Earlier mastitis detection can improve cow health and reduce economic losses.

Considering that clinical mastitis can cost between $128 and $444 per cow each year1-3 and subclinical mastitis can average $110 per cow annually,4 it may be worth investing in a mastitis detection system that fits your operation. Early mastitis detection is often the key to reducing the impact of this disease in a dairy herd.

“There are a variety of technologies used in precision dairy farming to more closely monitor physiological, behavioral and production indicators of individual animals,” explained Mark van der List, DVM, Boehringer Ingelheim.

“A few of these technologies are already being marketed in the United States, and are currently being implemented on some dairies,” he added. “But we’re likely to see more widespread adoption of these systems here as they become more accurate, precise and affordable.”

Types of Technology

Because mastitis impacts an animal in a variety of ways, researchers have taken several approaches to detecting the earliest signs of disease. Here is a quick review of the most common approaches:

Measuring electrical conductivity — Mastitis changes the concentration of sodium and chloride in the milk, which can be measured with electrical conductivity systems, said van der List. “These systems have been around quite a while and can be affordable, but are known for producing a lot of false positives.”

Monitoring rumen temperatures — An ingestible biosensor can be used in each animal to wirelessly communicate real-time measurement of rumen temperature. An alert is sent when a significant rise in the cow’s body temperature is detected, which could be an early sign of a problem. Because a sophisticated sensor is required for each cow, the cost can be prohibitive.

Sensing color variations — Sensors can be used to detect blood in milk and to highlight color pattern changes in images of infected quarters that might indicate flakes or clots in milk, as well as other foreign materials.

Mass spectroscopy of milk — This technology measures the mass-to-charge ratio of one or more molecules in a sample, and can be used to identify changes in milk constituents, such as somatic cell counts and mastitis-causing pathogens.

Biosensors for certain components — The enzyme L-lactate dehydrogenase is released in an immune response, so its increase can be measured with biosensors in cows with early mastitis.

These tools are being incorporated, and sometimes combined, into in-line milking systems to make mastitis detection more automated, and to help dairy producers detect the disease sooner, noted Dr. van der List. “Alerts provided by these types of technologies will help determine when to collect a sample and do a bacterial culture.”

Consider On-farm Culturing

A simpler and more accessible diagnostic tool that dairy producers are beginning to use more often is an on-farm mastitis culturing system. This tool enables producers to run bacteriological cultures in just 24 hours on their own farm. The plates used indicate if there is bacterial growth and whether the growth is Gram-positive or Gram-negative. Other plates available to producers can indicate if the pathogen is a streptococci — these mastitis cases are often subclinical for days and even weeks before resulting in clinical mastitis.

“Not all mastitis cases require antibiotic treatment such as mild to moderate cases of Gram-negative or no-growth ” said Dr. van der List. “As a result, many producers can reduce their overall antibiotic use.”

Requirements for an on-farm lab are rather simple:

  • One-time purchase of an incubator
  • Ongoing supplies of sampling vials and plates, sterile swabs
  • A small, clean area to work in
  • One to two employees trained in correct sampling and equipment use procedures

The cost of supplies for a simple on-farm culturing system runs about $3 per sample plus the initial incubator purchase ($50 to $100).5

It is important that these on-farm culture systems are managed in cooperation with the herd veterinarian as they are meant to guide treatment protocols — not diagnose pathogens, and they will not detect Mycoplasma.

“Work with your herd veterinarian to regularly review mastitis cases, and make sure you’re using the proper treatment protocols,” concluded Dr. van der List. “It’s also helpful to maintain a relationship with a milk quality lab to periodically confirm your on-farm culturing result interpretations.”