Last week I had to call on the services of our electrician again. The very old building in which our veterinary practice is located defies all logic when it comes to wiring. When we installed electric gates, they only worked when the sensor light on the back door came on. However, our excellent electrician keeps calling when needed, despite the inevitable chaos that awaits.
After solving the complex problem, he began to explain to me the details of our building’s problems. I cut him off and said “I’m going up the walls today and as long as it’s fixed I’m happy”.
As I drove to my next appointment, a meeting with a farmer discussion group, I realized what I had just done. I stuck my head in the sand like an ostrich. I knew there were bigger issues that needed to be addressed in our building, but I was too busy in my head to acknowledge them. Today was OK and we’ll take care of tomorrow, well, tomorrow. Funnily enough, I had just done what I was trying to convince the farmers not to do at our meeting.
The focus of the discussion was the collection of milk and the analysis of the data obtained from it. Milk logging gives us a huge amount of data and great insight into trends in the herd and also into the performance of individual cows. SCC (somatic cell count) is the main focus for most farmers and it is a sensitive issue to discuss.
SCC is not like other diseases in a herd. For example, if there is an IBR outbreak in a herd of cows, the veterinarian comes out, treats sick cows and takes samples. Samples come back positive for IBR and a vaccination program is put in place. Bob’s your uncle, problem solved. Unfortunately, this is not the case with SCC. In order to solve an SCC problem in a herd, it must involve an all-encompassing approach. Cubicles, feeding place, calving box, collection area and milking parlor must be checked for defects. All cows with high SCC or cases of mastitis should be cultured to determine the major defect causing the problems. Aggressive culling policies must be implemented for repeat offenders and many difficult decisions must be made around ‘big cow’ culling.
I can almost hear some of you exhaling a long, frustrated sigh at this stage. In truth, you’ve heard all this before, and even at my farmers’ meeting last week, I could see that some people are starting to lose interest.
Having grown up on a dairy farm, I can understand why. Agriculture is currently a stressed environment. Input costs are skyrocketing and the number of cows needed to support a family is growing exponentially. Added to this are the requirements imposed on farmers to comply with EU regulations. The cut-off point for milk SCC in some cooperatives is up to 400,000. If your herd does not exceed this, you will not be penalized. Many farmers have neither the time nor the desire to address an SCC issue as long as the herd stays below the limit.
So why bother at all? We have to point out the antibiotics regulation, which we now have to comply with. Until now you could get any mastitis tube you liked and any dry cow tube that piqued your taste. Antibiotics, which would take a great deal of effort for a doctor in a hospital to use, could be freely used by any farmer on 200 cows.
Excessive and incorrect use of antibiotics leads to resistance. Bacteria are getting smarter and learning to develop defense mechanisms so antibiotics don’t kill them.
Some cases of mastitis resolve without treatment with antibiotics—anti-inflammatories alone are sufficient. Other cases will need antibiotics, but certainly not the higher tier ones. Likewise, some cows do not need antibiotics when drying off (selective dry period therapy). The reality is that antibiotics have masked the cracks in many agricultural systems in recent years and we are now at a critical juncture. There are two possibilities. One, stick your head in the sand, or option two, address the issues at hand.
It is important to note that both options are viable, depending on many factors. As a veterinarian, before starting a Mastitis/SCC investigation, there is a page with a few questions that I and the farmer need to answer. It might sound a bit breezy, but give me a minute. Does the farmer want my help and is he willing to listen? Do they have the time and commitment? Do you want to be in business in 10 years?
Often the answers aren’t just yes or no, but before we start we need to find out if it’s even worth starting because if not we won’t get results and everyone is frustrated. The vet also has to ask himself a very important question: Do I want to help? Each individual vet is different and may not be the best vet in the practice at the time to take on the project for reasons such as lack of time, overwork or simply a personality conflict with the farmer.
When everyone is on board to address the issue, antibiotic compliance will be the basis of a plan. Samples should be taken from every mastitis case or even a quarter found to have a high SCC. Over the course of the year you will be able to build up a database of information telling you which bug is causing problems in your flock and which antibiotic will best treat it.
The cost of sampling may seem expensive at first, but if it saves even one cow/heifer culling, the payback is 10-fold. The beauty of routine milk sample analysis is that it not only benefits the bottom line, but also stands up to scrutiny if/when you get a drug inspection.
Like me and my dodgy electrics, you can still stick your head in the sand. The only thing about it is when the head is in the sand, the butt is in the air and it doesn’t take long to get kicked.
Eamon O’Connell is a Veterinarian at Summerhill Vet Clinic, Nenagh, Co. Tipperary
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/dairy/dairy-advice/eamon-oconnell-if-your-head-is-in-the-sand-your-rear-end-is-in-the-air-and-it-will-get-kicked-41811174.html Eamon O’Connell: When your head is in the sand, your backside is in the air and it’s getting kicked!