For dairy farmer Alan Watkins, the long-term aim is to improve longevity, and with mastitis being one of the main reasons cows were leaving his 250-cow herd he decided to do something about it.
Through a greater focus on targeting problem cows and keeping the cows’ environment cleaner, not only has Shropshire farmer Alan Watkins lowered somatic cell counts (SCC) and mastitis incidence, but he has also seen a reduction in antibiotic treatments at drying off.
Mr Watkins, who farms with his brother Edwin, and son, Will, at Hall Farm in Snitton, near Ludlow, says much of this improvement is down to dialogue with other dairy farmers through a First Milk ‘cow and calf’ sustainability working group, which has specifically looked at mastitis.
The group involved 15 farmers from the Shropshire area, who met every two months from October 2012 until summer last year. Expert advice was provided by First Milk sustainability partners - Edinburgh University Vet School.
Mr Watkins says: “When we started the group about 30 per cent of those involved were in the ‘top performing’ somatic cell count band for First Milk producers. By the end of the project, more than 90 per cent were achieving figures which put them in the top band.
“The whole group was averaging a cell count of 211 when we started, and this dropped to 163 by the end, which represents a 23 per cent improvement,” he says.
“As a dairy farmer, my long-term aim is to improve the longevity of my cows and when I looked at why most cows were leaving the herd, the two main reasons were mastitis and fertility.”
First Milk arranged bacteriological testing so members of the group could determine what mastitis bugs were on the farm.
This testing found Staph. uberis to be present on Mr Watkins’ farm and, as a result, most mastitis cases could be classified as ‘environmental’.
“Some cows were suffering from contagious mastitis caused by Staph. aureus, so these animals were culled as otherwise we would just continue treating them forever.
“We typed every problem cow so we knew which ones to target and which ones were worth spending money on in terms of treatment and prevention.”
Mr Watkins points out one of the biggest indicators mastitis was a problem was the somatic cell count, which historically had stayed around the 190 mark. Mr Watkins has worked hard to bring this down to its current level of about 120, with an all-time low of 80 achieved within the last 12 months, something Mr Watkins says is ‘unheard of’ for his herd.
To help achieve this lower SCC, Mr Watkins has been focusing on keeping the cows’ environment cleaner.
“We are now using more sand on the cubicle beds to keep the cows cleaner and have also changed suppliers so we are now using a drier, lighter sand, which seems to make a difference,” says Mr Watkins.
The cubicle beds are cleaned daily and sand is topped up once-a-week with a sand spreader.
A pre-dipping ‘foam’ is also now used as part of the milking preparation routine, and Mr Watkins says it is easier to remove sand from teats. This, along with changes to the sand bedding, has meant cows are staying much ‘cleaner’ than before.
He adds this lower SCC has also given him the confidence to alter his drying off protocols.
“We have always had a lot of cows with low somatic cell counts, but we were still doing a blanket dry cow therapy on the whole herd.
“But we took the decision last summer to only use a teat sealant and an antibiotic treatment on high somatic cell count cows.”
This has meant the whole herd still receives a teat sealant at drying off, but only cows which have been treated for mastitis in their last lactation, or have an average lactation SCC more than 200, receive an antibiotic treatment as well.
“We would not have had the confidence to do this if the herd average somatic cell count was still around the 194-mark,” says Mr Watkins.
He estimates about 20 cows out of 200 were double tubed during the last dry period and he thinks this is saving him about £1,500.
“And we have had no more cases of mastitis than we would normally see. We have had 30 cases since last August and nine of these happened within the first 30 days post-calving. That is quite exceptional for us.”
Mr Watkins adds the hybrid vigour of his cross-bred herd has also had some bearing on health.
“We had always milked Holstein cows but we started cross breeding in 2007, when we began to experience a huge amount of trouble with TB in the herd. That year alone we lost 35 out of 37 heifers, and we bought some Jersey crosses in as replacements.
“They did well, were easy to manage and while Jersey crosses, we feel, are a step too far for us we decided to bring in some Swedish Red and British Friesian genetics along with the Jersey.”
Some Montbeliarde lines are now being introduced to the herd which last year calved from August to April.
“We are hoping to tighten this up a bit, and want to concentrate calving in the autumn months going forward.”
Cows are grazed during the summer and topped up with a semi-TMR of maize and grass silage, and blend when grass falls behind demand.
Grass covers are measured weekly using a plate meter and Mr Watkins says his aim is to now get more milk from forage and grazed grass.
“We are operating on a 110-acre grazing platform, so we are up against it in terms of what we can achieve. But the more grass we can grow, the more we can aim to achieve,” says Mr Watkins, who adds the First Milk sustainability group will now focus their attention on milk from forage.
Of the 160 hectares (400 acres) farmed by Mr Watkins, some 56ha (140 acres) is owned by the family partnership which also involves Mr Watkins’ parents.
The remaining acreage is rented under various agreements with most of the land down to grass and some maize grown.