DATA and sample collection from working dairy farms has started for a Western Australian research project aiming to improve early identification of highly contagious mastitis in dairy herds.
Western Dairy’s veterinary scholarship winner, fourth-year Murdoch University veterinary science student Liz Cork, and her research supervisor, production animal veterinarian and bovine health and management lecturer Dr Herb Rovay, started collecting data this month.
So far, Ms Cork and Dr Rovay have been visiting Anthony and Mel Anfuso’s dairy farm at Oldbury, between Rockingham and Mundijong in WA.
The Anfuso farm was chosen because of its relative closeness to Murdoch’s veterinary science laboratory.
Early detection results will be compared with a benchmark standard milk sample test in the Murdoch laboratory using agar plates to develop and identify bacteria.
Murdoch, Western Dairy and Dairy Australia are collaborating on the mastitis project, which will also include an evaluation of the performance of three commercial cell-count devices – including two hand-held ones – that, if validated, may become tools to detect mastitis.
Mastitis is the broad term for inflammatory udder infections caused by a variety of bacteria affecting milk quality and yield.
It is rated as the most prevalent and costly production disease in dairy herds worldwide.
According to Dairy Australia, the Australian dairy industry has been at the forefront of developing early intervention management strategies.
But most of the work has been carried out in the Eastern States and there has been little research on identifying specific pathogens causing mastitis in WA.
Part of the problem for dairyfarmers in identifying mastitis is that subclinical mastitis shows no visible symptoms in cows or milk, and cows’ herd survival instincts are to try to disguise when they are feeling unwell.
Undetected mastitis spreading through a herd can cause a gradual milk production drop over a long period.
It is usually detected by a high somatic cell count (SCC) in milk.
Dairies fitted with the latest computerised milking station monitoring equipment may detect unusually high SCC counts in individual cows.
But generally, a high cell count is not detected until bulk milk is pumped when the milk tanker come to collect it.
Suspect cows are usually treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics until a specific pathogen and treatment regime is identified.
Ms Cork said one aim for her project was to reduce usage of broad-spectrum antibiotics and slow development of pathogen resistance to them.
“Our ultimate goal through the combined research efforts is to be in a position where we can dramatically reduce antibiotic use – but that can only happen through preventative measures and early detection,” Ms Cork said.
Dr Rovay said a range of factors applying to dairy herds and environmental conditions in working dairies would be investigated.
“Every farm visit I remind myself that most well-fed and well-managed cows are profitable and very few get sick,” Dr Rovay said.
“The project we are working on with Liz is helping to quantify how much better we can be at that management and, in this case, in particular, relation to mastitis.”
Ms Cork spends weekends and university holidays milking cows and working on the Chapman dairy farm near Busselton.
She won the Western Dairy 2017 scholarship and is one of the inaugural Murdoch veterinary medicine doctorate cohort due to graduate in December next year.
Her ambition is to become a large animal veterinarian specialising in dairy cattle.
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