“Hey, Doc, waddaya got for mastitis?” is a question posed by dairymen everywhere. I wish I had a good answer. Treatments range from frequent stripping out of the udder to the newest antibiotic or immune stimulant. Fortunately, many treatments are successful. But some treatments only suppress the symptoms and when the effect of the treatment wears off the symptoms return with a vengeance. Unfortunately, any success with treatment often interferes with the need or desire to address the actual cause of the problems. Holistic veterinary medicine may have some insights into this problem, insights that are often overlooked by today’s dairymen.
I think holistic practitioners approach problems with a different mindset. They try to look beyond the immediate symptoms and look for and remove any predisposing cause or causes. They view the patient not only as an individual but also as a part of the ecosystem in which it lives. Finally, a true holistic practitioner will emphasize holistic animal health management (proactive) in addition to just treating the symptoms (reactive), whether the treatment is holistic or conventional. All dairies have constraints imposed on them by natural principles and the innate nature of the cow. One can either manage according to these principles and enhance animal health and profit or disregard these principles and reap the consequences of impaired herd health. Holistic vet medicine is not about new, high technology or old, low technology, but it is about appropriate technology. It is definitely not the conventional system, minus the drugs, nor is it just the replacement of a conventional treatment with a natural remedy.
Let me give you an actual example. I recently received a phone call from a veterinarian who has been working with an organic herd that has a mastitis and high SCC problem. Milk cultures consistently revealed strep bacteria. Since this was an organic herd his treatment options were limited. He had tried various treatments including herbs, tinctures, homeopathy and colostrum whey products … all had little effect. He had consulted with an “organic” vet at a university and received the standard conventional recommendations; identify the problem animals, milk them last, sell the really bad ones and treat the rest with whatever their certifier allows. Good advice, but only a Band-aid. It manages the symptoms but not the cause. As our conversation proceeded, I asked him a couple of questions.
Have you checked for stray voltage?
How long after prepping begins are the units attached?
He had not checked those items but he did his homework and later reported that their electrician did not find any stray voltage. However, he had timed the interval between initial prepping and putting on the units to be somewhat over 4 minutes … way too long!
All good dairymen know how important it is to properly prep cows. The best stimulus to the “let-down” reflex mimics the suckling of the offspring … warmth, moisture, some pressure or massage, and removing milk. When these or similar stimuli are applied as the cow is being prepared for milking, oxytocin is released. Within about a minute, myo-epithelial cells surrounding the alveoli contract, thus forcing milk out into the duct system. If milking is delayed much past one minute oxytocin begins to clear the system and the oxytocin reflex does not proceed to completion. If one does not “prep” adequately and does not begin milking within one minute, milk yield decreases and “residual milk” increases. As a general rule, anything that interferes with the initiation or completion of the oxytocin reflex results in excess residual milk in the udder. Residual milk is not milk that could be removed by extra stripping but milk that has not been fully expressed from the alveoli.
Residual milk provides an ideal medium for the growth of bacteria. If culturing reveals, streptococcus as the predominant bacteria there are two main areas that need to be checked … stray voltage and improper milking procedures especially prep time.
If there is stray voltage present and the cow anticipates getting shocked when she enters the milking area or when the units are attached she will be stressed and fearful. The resulting release of adrenalin interferes with the initiation of the oxytocin reflex, the animal does not ‘let-down” her milk, production goes down and residual milk is increased. If cows are jumpy in the barn or have a high incidence of strep mastitis it is wise to check for stray voltage. If you can measure it, then take steps to get rid of it. The results will speak for themselves.
If milking procedures are not choreographed to insure that milking units are attached to the cow and taking away milk within about 60 seconds after the start of prepping the oxytocin reflex will be impaired, residual milk will increase and thus ‘open the door’ for strep mastitis.
Here’s another example. An older couple was milking cows in a double 12 parlor that had been built when the kids were helping with the dairy. The kids were now gone and the dairyman fed and cared for the cows and his wife did the milking. They were plagued with strep mastitis. They had tried a multitude of antibiotics and many natural products without much success. I visited the dairy at milking time and watched the milking routine. With only one person milking they would load only one side of the parlor with 12 cows. Then this wonderfully meticulous lady would thoroughly wash and prep all 12 cows before attaching the unit to the first cow prepped … about 12 minutes later. I was able, after a time, to convince her to adjust her routine so that each cow had a unit attached in about 60 seconds after prep started. In only a few days their strep problem was much abated.
Many factors are involved in managing and treating mastitis. In the above instance the overriding predisposing cause was failure to understand and conform to the basic physiological makeup of the cow. When that was corrected the problem corrected itself. In addition to the most obvious predisposing factors, we also need to consider anything that puts the animals under stress or depresses the immune system. No treatment will be really effective until the cause is removed or reduced.
“So, Doc, waddaya got for mastitis?” Oddly enough, if the cause of the problem has been removed, the same natural therapies that did not work before will probably now be effective. Colostrum whey products, acupuncture, tinctures, herbs and homeopathy are all effective when applied by knowledgeable practitioners in herds reasonably free from stress.
The thoughts expressed here are my opinions based on almost 50 years of experience in veterinary medicine, both as a conventional veterinary practitioner and as a holistic dairy consultant. I know some folks will disagree. That is their privilege. I only try to explore options from a holistic mindset and then look for confirmation from the real experts … in this case the animals in our charge. If we are attentive in our observations and interpret what we see with a holistic mindset we can learn a lot from cows. And always remember …
“No problem can be solved until all its causes are understood.”