Improving mastitis control, reducing antibiotic use, increasing the economic viability of dairy farms — these are the goals of a research team led by Ronald Erskine, professor in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Science. The researchers, from Michigan State University, University of Pennsylvania, Mississippi State University, and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, have been awarded a grant by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture for a project that aims to reduce antibiotic use among dairy cows by half and instances of mastitis in dairy cows by a third within five years.
Mastitis is the most devastating disease affecting adult dairy cattle in the United States and is the single biggest cause of antimicrobial use in the dairy industry. Mastitis-causing pathogens can be spread from cow to cow during milking, and poor sanitary and health conditions can make transmission easier. That, says Erskine, brings a whole set of costs to producers.
“When we fail to prevent the disease, producers face the costs of drugs, labor to administer the drugs, and wasted milk that cannot be sent to market,” says Erskine. “We know what works—now we need to address barriers to implementing what we know.”
Because the framework for the USDA project will be based on mastitis control guidelines that already exist, the team — the Quality Milk Alliance — will focus on developing and delivering information with social-demographic variables in mind. The dairy industry has evolved, and it is often not the owner or manager on the parlor floor, which is where mastitis starts and where much of the prevention takes place. “The goal is to specifically design materials to help overcome behavioral barriers and have the flexibility to address the diversity of the U.S. dairy industry,” explains Erskine.
The project begins with a survey of dairy farmers’ mastitis management practices that will provide information to researchers as they develop tools to be used to improve mastitis control. The team will develop and test an auditing tool, a Quality Milk Specialist Certification program, and intervention processes for dairy operations. The team will also develop an integrated education program that will be delivered through an online educational tool—a cyberinstitute that will provide targeted education available on demand.
This project represents a focused regional approach as a first step towards expansion into a national program and addresses a dairy industry that is increasingly diverse in terms of herd size, housing, labor, and management models “The audit tool, the certification program, the cyberinstitute—these will all continue on beyond the five years of the project,” explains Erskine.
Michigan is an ideal location for this type of project. Collecting data, developing systems, creating tools—this all requires significant collaboration across stakeholders. “There is a strong alliance in Michigan between producers, dairy cooperatives, regulatory professionals, the College, and Extension,” says Erskine,” and we are consistently one of the top states in quality milk and mastitis control.” This year, of the 51 dairy producers honored by the National Dairy Quality Award Program, 19 are from Michigan.
Erskine has been working for about three decades to identify ways to reduce mastitis and processes to help implement better practices. This project supports one of his long-term objectives—to enhance global food security, dairy food quality, and food safety by reducing mastitis and antimicrobial use on dairy farms in the United States.