Identify and Control Mastitis in Dairy Cows



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.

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