A few words about mastitis and cows. Full disclosure: I am not a veterinarian nor do I have any formal training or expertise in animal health beyond what I have learned through practical experience during my more than 40 years as a dairy farmer. For the purposes of this writing, I am going to assume you aren't milking very many cows and that you are probably fairly inexperienced with mastitis. The first thing to do if you notice any health issues with any of your animals, pets or livestock, is to call your vet. What follows is simply how I deal with my cows.
Expert Tips for Controlling Mastitis on a Small Dairy
Test often. Probably the best way to avoid or control mastitis in your cows is to have their milk tested regularly so you can spot problems quickly. First do what is called a tank test. Mix your cows’ milk together and test the entire batch. If the sample tests positive for any signs of mastitis or has an abnormally high “somatic cell count” then sample and test each cow individually so you can identify and isolate the problem cow and her milk. Once you identify the problem cow or cows, test the milk from each quarter so you can identify the problem quarter or quarters. Then follow your vet’s recommendations.
Test early. Most importantly, test the milk from any new cow you intend to buy before you buy her and introduce into your herd. It is wise to avoid all cows with a high “somatic cell count” or milk that shows any signs of mastitis when tested. I always pay for the testing if the cow is okay and I end up buying her. But if she doesn’t test okay and I don’t buy her, then the seller can pay for the testing. Another rule I try to follow is to put my hands on and feel the udder of any cow I intend to buy. If she kicks or has a hard or slack quarter I usually pass on her.
Monitor abnormalities in milk. One of the pieces of equipment that I sell at my dairy equipment business is a “strip cup”, a little cup with a screen on top that you squirt samples of your cow’s milk into as you prep her for milking so you can spot any abnormal milk or flecks of solid milk or clots, also called "garget", which can be an indication of an udder infection or mastitis. Strip cups can also drive a dairy farmer crazy and cause him or her to worry and call the vet for no reason. Small flecks or clots of milk can appear on the cup's screen for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with mastitis. Don’t tell anyone but I put my strip cup on the shelf years ago and watch for mastitis problems by simply observing my cows and their milk and testing it routinely.
Another method you can try for early detection of mastitis is called the California Mastitis Test, or CMT. Some dairy farmers swear by them. I swear at them! Like strip cups they can drive you crazy worrying about mastitis. It is far better to have your cows’ milk tested by a dairy-testing lab such as DHIA. Ask your vet about it.
Monitor behavior. If your cow's udder looks and feels normal when you prep and milk her and she is behaving normally, then she is probably okay. A normal cow should always either be eating, drinking, chewing her cud or sleeping. If one of your cows isn’t, something may be wrong with her. As long as she isn’t in distress, the first thing to do is take her temperature. It should be around 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit but it does vary from time to time. If she is in distress or has a fever, call your vet.
I agree with experienced dairy farmers who say they can feel clinical mastitis when they start a cow, if she has it. You can feel the clots or garget pass through the teat canal with the milk on the way out. Now when I prep and start my cows, I squirt their milk onto the paper towel I wiped them with. If you do see any abnormal milk be sure to remove and replace any bedding that you may have squirted it onto so she doesn’t lie in it.
Strep Ag Mastitis
There is one extremely important form of mastitis that you need to be on the constant look out for, chronic Strep Ag mastitis. A cow suffering from it may show clots in her milk yet not show any other clinical signs or symptoms of mastitis. To complicate the issue, with Strep Ag, the clots in her milk may go into remission for a short period, leading you to believe the infection has passed, only to reappear in a few days or weeks.
I consider Strep Ag mastitis to be incurable (despite claims to the contrary) and I know it is highly contagious. I bite the bullet and ship cows that carry the infection right away. If you must milk a cow with Strep Ag or any other type of mastitis, always milk her last and be sure to thoroughly wash and disinfect your hands before you touch another cow. Plus always discard her milk and never feed it to calves, as the infected milk may pass the infection on to the calves. If you are machine milking, thoroughly wash, disinfect and dry the machine before using it to milk another cow, or better yet set it aside and use another clean machine.
Coliform or E-coli Mastitis
All the bells and whistles should go off on in your barn if your cow’s udder or any individual quarter swells up and feels hot to the touch or is obviously painful for the cow. It could be Coliform or E-coli mastitis. Both are bad news. Again, take her temperature and call your vet immediately. The situation can get ugly quickly.
Both Coliform and E-coli mastitis can be fatal. Sometimes when you start a quarter infected with either Coliform or E-coli only clear liquid and garget will come out. On occasion, the garget will actually plug up the teat canal and stop the flow of milk or whatever is coming out. In the worst cases, the foremilk can also be bloody and even gaseous! Make sure you wash and disinfect your hands and all equipment that may have come into contact with the infection as soon as possible.
But keep in mind that bloody milk can also be a sign that the udder was damaged or injured somehow, either by another cow or a pasture hazard. So don’t automatically panic if you see blood in a cow’s milk or there is some mild swelling or hardness in a quarter. Just pay attention to the situation. Give her some aspirin if she seems to be in pain.
Can Mastitis Be Cured?
Sometimes. Always follow the recommendations of your veterinarian and have your cows’ milk tested routinely so you can spot a problem quickly before it spreads to your other cows.
In the old days before antibiotics, the common cure for mastitis was to hand milk the infected quarters out as many times per day as possible (to eliminate the medium, or milk, that the infection can multiply in) and to give the cow aspirin for any swelling or discomfort.
A good rule is to avoid injecting anything into your cows’ udders or sticking anything into your cow’s teat canals for any reason. Just leave them alone. Avoid teat dilators and cannulas if at all possible. And never pick a scab off the end of a teat canal. If your cows are developing scabs on their teat ends, check the adjustment your milking equipment first and apply a salve that softens the scabs and encourages new skin growth such as a Calendula salve.
But the worst of the worst is when a cow develops mastitis because she has stepped on, cut or otherwise injured a teat. Just follow your vet's advice; keep you fingers crossed and try not get kicked. Injured or cut teats seem to take forever to heal, depending on the seriousness of the injury. They can be very discouraging and require the farmer to have great patience and gentle hands. Make sure your cows have good footing on surfaces where they lie down so they don’t slip or lose their footing when they get up. If you don’t have mats in your stalls, putting down pulverized lime helps with the traction.
In closing, I firmly believe that best way to cure mastitis is to prevent it in the first place by keeping your cows and their housing as clean and dry as possible. Don’t let manure build up on their udders or flanks and keep where they sleep or lie down well bedded, clean and dry. Pick the manure out of run-in sheds and loose housing daily and keep them well bedded. I have been milking three or four cows at my micro dairy for a dozen years and haven't had one case of mastitis in my barn yet! Enjoy your cows and good luck.
Steve Judge has been involved with the dairy industry for 45 years as a farm hand, farm owner, farm manager, and marketing entrepreneur. He is the founder of Bob-White Systems Inc., an innovative internet business that sells milking and milk handling equipment to smaller, sustainable, community-based dairies across the U.S. Watch Steve’s YouTube videos on small-scale dairying, connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.