Do-It-Yourself Testing: Timely on-farm diagnosis can improve mastitis treatment

February 3, 2009 11:52 AM


Despite your best efforts, your dairy is likely to face mastitis. Boost your treatment success with an on-farm diagnostic milk culturing system.

Here is something that you may wish you didn't know: Mastitis remains the most costly infectious disease present on U.S. dairies today.

It's the No. 1 reason for antimicrobial use and causes an estimated $1.8 billion in annual losses, mostly due to subclinical mastitis.

"Regardless of the effort and the quality of mastitis preventative programs, there will still be clinical and subclinical mastitis cases,” says veterinarian Brian Miller of Fort Dodge Animal Health. "The greatest challenge today is from environmental pathogens.”

An on-farm diagnostic milk culturing system can help improve your success with mastitis treatment, Miller says.

The on-farm system offers two distinct advantages:

  • It identifies the causative bacteria prior to the initiation of intramammary treatment.
  • The treatment program can be specifically designed for the bacteria isolated. "You can direct the right drug to the right bug,” Miller says.

An on-farm lab can help you make more strategic clinical mastitis treatment decisions. "It pays to get a diagnosis,” Miller says. "With a diagnosis, you can specifically target the treatment of Gram-positive pathogens because Gram-negative pathogens have a high tendency to self-cure.”

With an early mastitis diagnosis and the proper targeted treatment of Gram-positive pathogens, you can reduce intramammary antibiotic treatment costs by approximately 50%, Miller says. That results in:

  • lower labor costs associated with cow treatments;
  • less time in the treatment pen for mastitic cows;
  • reduced risk for antibiotic residues in milk; and
  • lower antibiotic resistance risk.

"Further, and most importantly,” Miller adds, "responsible antibiotic usage helps counter the negative public perception that, as an industry, we overutilize antibiotics in the treatment of our dairy animals.”

Traditional culture programs use commercial, state/university or in-clinic laboratories. Some, though not all, have a 48-hour to 72-hour turnaround time for results.

"Treatment is usually begun before the diagnosis is established, often leading to disappointing results because you don't know the target pathogen prior to treatment,” Miller says. "This can be frustrating.”

Traditional culture programs also carry associated expenses of higher culture costs and shipping charges.

"On-farm culture systems,” Miller says, "are an underutilized management tool.”



You can purchase the equipment needed for on-farm culturing from several vendors, says Phil Sears, professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University.

Sears says it costs about $200 to get started. You'll need:

  • sterile collection vials for aseptic milk sampling
  • culture plates to grow the bacteria
  • an incubator that will hold a constant temperature while bacteria are growing
  • loops or swabs to transfer milk samples from the vials to the bacteria culture plates.

"Other diagnostic agents including hydrogen peroxide (catalase test) and specific diagnostic tests can be used, depending on the skill of the farm personnel,” Sears notes.

Several culture systems are available, but Sears recommends the Bi-plate (blood agar/MacConkey agar) culture method.



Most new environmental intramammary infections begin during the dry period, says Brian Miller of Fort Dodge Animal Health. It's recognized that these new intramammary infections acquired during the dry period often persist into the next lactation.

"These carryover infections often result in elevations in linear score and somatic cell counts on the first test and new clinical cases of mastitis during early lactation,” he says. "Despite our current efforts, there is significant opportunity for improved mastitis management during the dry period.”

Potentially, on-farm culture systems could be used to identify and eliminate subclinical intramammary infections present at the time of calving, which could improve milk quality and benefit production in the upcoming lactation.

Bonus content:

Click here to read this article in Spanish.

Click here to read "On-farm Mastitis Culturing: Is It Right For You?" from the Michigan Dairy Review.

Click here to view several training presentations on mastitis and on-farm culturing. The presentations are available in English and Spanish from Michigan State University''s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Click here to read "Evaluation of Mastitis Pathogen Identification for On-Farm Application."

Click here for on-farm culturing products and vendors at the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine website. Then click on "On-farm culture and supplies."


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