Three reasons for on-farm milk culturing

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The tight dairy economy is forcing producers to take a close look at improving milk production levels and reducing treatment costs. More milk and less mastitis add up to an improved bottom line.

Subclinical mastitis silently robs producers of more pounds of milk, while clinical mastitis causes a more obvious and direct impact on an operation, with milk discard during and after treatment, along with the cost of treatment. One strategy that allows dairy producers to make better mastitis treatment decisions is to implement an on-farm milk culturing system.

“On-farm milk culturing is not for every dairy operation,” says Linda Tikofsky, professional services veterinarian with Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica Inc. “A farm needs to have a certain level of mastitis in the herd or a certain number of cows, to make the investment in equipment and training economically feasible.”

She adds that if a farm is only sporadically doing milk cultures it makes more economical sense to submit milk samples to their veterinarian or an outside lab. Tikofsky says there are three main reasons for dairy producers to put an on-farm milk culturing system in place:

  • Treatment decision: On-farm culturing at the most basic level allows producers to determine if the pathogens causing the infection are gram positive or gram negative. On-farm culture results can drive decisions to use an intramammary antibiotic, select a specific drug that has greater effectiveness against the specific pathogen, or withhold antibiotic treatment and discard milk until the cow can naturally eliminate the infection.
  • Timeliness: On-farm culturing can give a producer preliminary results within 24 hours. Samples collected and sent to an off-site laboratory may take five to seven days for a diagnosis. Faster results allow the producer to make more immediate decisions on treatment.
  • Cost effectiveness: With targeted treatment, producers will see a better response to treatment of infections caused by gram positive pathogens like staphylococci and some environmental streps. A recent study looked at the cost effectiveness of using on-farm culturing to identify and treat only gram positive infections. The 189 cases, after accounting for all costs, resulted in a net income of about $3,342 per month. Infections caused by gram negative pathogens have a high rate of spontaneous cure and most antibiotics have limited efficacy against these pathogens. With many cases of mastitis caused by gram negative pathogens, the cow will clear the infection on her own without antibiotics. Evaluation of numerous research studies have shown 50 to 60 percent of clinical milk samples would earn a “no treatment” decision because they are negative for bacteria or it is a gram negative pathogen.
  • Before implementing an on-farm culturing system, Tikofsky says producers need to consider several factors. “Operations need to make the commitment to have a designated person to plate the milk and review the plates to give you the right information,” says Tikofsky. “You need to train that person and everyone that collects samples to make sure it is done right.”

Other considerations include providing a clean environment to culture the samples and review plates to prevent contamination, investing in the right equipment including an incubator and plates, and finally, a proper disposal area for pathogenic materials.

“The bottom line is that with the information provided by on-farm culturing, producers can save money and increase the odds of a full cure on first treatment,” says Tikofsky. “If you treat right the first time, then the affected cow is back in the tank quicker and you save on milk discard.”

Tikofsky recommends that dairy producers visit with their consulting veterinarian about the advantages and implications of implementing an on-farm culturing system.

Here are some additional tips for on-farm culturing offered by Sarah Wagner, veterinarian and assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at North Dakota State University.

Source: Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica Inc.


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