What do dairy farmers in Minnesota and Nicaragua have in common?
On a recent volunteer trip for Partners of the America’s USAID Farmer-to-Farmer program, I had the opportunity to see just what dairy farmers in Nicaragua and Minnesota have in common – admittedly, very little. The Nicaraguan dairy industry is very different, relying primarily on “dual purpose” cattle breeds (i.e., Brahman crossed with Jersey, Holstein or Brown Swiss), tropical forages (i.e., high fiber, low energy) and hand-milking. Many farmers do not have access to what we would consider minimum requirements – clean water, sanitation products and affordable electricity.
My task in Nicaragua was to identify opportunities for improving milk quality and train extension agents and farmers how to identify and manage mastitis. Given the limitations, I was at first hard pressed to come up with any practical recommendations. But after a few days, I started to see that the basics are really the same, no matter where you are. In fact, with increasing pressure to reduce antibiotic use in U.S. food animals, while maintaining and even improving milk quality and animal welfare, it might be useful to review the basic strategies I recommended in Nicaragua. It turns out what U.S. and Nicaraguan dairy farmers have in common is the need to focus first on prevention.
In Nicaragua, herds with good body condition and adequate parasite control are less likely to struggle with mastitis. Cows need enough energy in their diet, as well as vitamins and minerals, for their immune systems to function at an optimal level, allowing them to fight off mastitis and other infections. In the U.S., the same principle is true. Key areas for ensuring a healthy, immune-competent herd are transition and feeding management and vaccination.
While most dairies in the U.S. don’t milk cows standing in a dirt paddock, plenty of dairies struggle with maintaining a clean cow environment in at least one area of the dairy – dry cow housing, stall bedding, transfer lanes, holding pen, etc. What area on your dairy could be improved to reduce the risk of environmental mastitis?
Easy proper milking practices
One thing I was surprised to learn was that every Nicaraguan farmer could describe milking best practices: fore-stripping, pre- and post-dipping, single use towels, wearing gloves, clean equipment. However, few of these practices were adopted on the dairies I visited. On any dairy, there are usually a few simple modifications that can make a milker’s job easier, and more importantly, easier to do correctly. In Nicaragua, that included a hand-washing station placed next to the milk collection cans, so milkers could disinfect their hands often. What could you do on your dairy to make it easier for milkers to do things correctly?
Keep cows standing after milking
Although most U.S. dairies follow this basic principle, it’s a good idea to periodically verify that the timing of feed delivery and push-up coincides with cows returning from the parlor. We want cows to remain standing for at least 20 minutes to give the teat canal time to close, to prevent bacteria from gaining entry to the mammary gland during this susceptible period. This may be an especially good reminder for dairies that bed on organic material that has a higher bacterial load.
Identify cows with mastitis
In Nicaragua, it’s a common practice to allow the calf to “prime” the cow before milking. In addition to stimulating milk let-down, you also have a nice layer of saliva on the teat to lubricate hand milking. The milk then goes right into the bucket and the only indication that a cow has mastitis is if she kicks or has no milk in one quarter. With a high probability of contagious mastitis, one of the most important recommendations for Nicaraguan dairies was to check for clinical mastitis at every milking and periodically check for subclinical mastitis using the California Mastitis Test. Cows with mastitis could then be marked and milked last in the milking order to reduce the risk of spreading the infection to other cows. In addition, milkers should disinfect their hands after milking an infected cow.
These same recommendations hold up in the U.S. In fact, in my experience, this is a major opportunity for improvement in many U.S. herds, and the logistics of implementation are even easier than in Nicaragua. Train milkers to check for signs of clinical mastitis in the foremilk of every quarter at every milking, and monitor them to ensure it is being done consistently. Cows that have clinical mastitis should be marked and treated or managed according to farm protocols. After milking a cow with clinical mastitis, milkers should disinfect or change gloves. In addition to identifying clinical mastitis, many dairies also need a strategy for identifying and managing cows with chronic, subclinical mastitis. Luckily, many dairies have the data to do this at their fingertips in monthly DHIA SCC test results.
In the U.S., we are lucky to be part of an advanced dairy industry with all the bells and whistles that come with it. We have access to a vast array of products and services that help us keep cows healthy and make top quality milk. But my trip to Nicaragua confirmed one thing – great dairies are great not because they use the newest milking liner, teat dip, feed additive, udder cream or antibiotic tube, but because they do the basics right 99% of time.