Holistic Management of Udder Health - By Richard J. Holliday, DVM

Holistic Management of Udder Health
Published in "Building a Holistic Foundation for Animal Health," By R.J. Holliday, DVM
Almost everyone is aware of the basic management practices that are the foundation of animal health in general and udder health in particular. In this article I would like to explore several often overlooked principles and procedures that have a strong influence on udder health.
Drying-off is a critical time for udder health and any extra care given at this time will pay big dividends throughout the next lactation.  Prepare the cow for the stressful transition from lactating to non-lactating by using your favorite herbs, homeopathy preparation, colostrum products, acupuncture, or others to boost her immune system and help relieve stress.
After this period of preparation, just quit milking her. She must have a tight udder for about five days for her hormonal system to get the message to quit producing milk. Milking her out to relieve the pressure and discomfort before this time is up only prolongs the process. 
After about five or six days, when the udder swelling begins to recede, sanitize the teats and milk out some milk. Normal appearing milk indicates a healthy udder.  If this is the case, completely milk-out the udder, sanitize the teats and rejoice in the knowledge that for now at least the udder is healthy.  
Occasionally at this time the milk will show abnormalities such as chunks, clots, watery, slimy, bloody streaks or anything that does not look like normal milk. In that event, milk out the udder, begin your treatment of choice and rejoice that you have discovered the problem before it gets worse. Continue the treatment, check the milk and strip out the udder every few days for as long as necessary to clear up the problem. If you let her go completely dry while she has an infection, she will almost certainly have the same problem when she freshens.  
If drying-off was accomplished successfully, the next critical time for the udder begins about two weeks before freshening and continues until a week or so afterwards. When she begins to “bag-up“ and has a tight udder, sanitize her teats, milk out some milk and examine it. Early in the “bagging-up” phase, normal secretion will usually resemble a clear amber fluid somewhat like honey and progress from that to regular milk as she gets closer to calving; If normal, be happy. 
If the secretion is not normal … chunks, clots stringy, slimy or bloody … milk her out completely and begin your favorite treatment. Continue to milk her twice a day until she freshens. This “Pre-milking” procedure will save many udders that would normally be lost if the infection was allowed to go unchecked all the way to calving.  
Colostrum is produced shortly before calving.  Save the milk right before and after calving and give it to the calf.  It will provide all the protection they need even though the volume will be less.
These procedures provide a way to check the status of the udder at key periods during the dry period and allow you to begin remedial action if and when a problem occurs.   If you follow these procedures you will know 100 percent more about udder health than those that only infuse with antibiotics at dry-off and then wait until freshening to see if it worked or not. 
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 stimuli are applied as the cow is prepared for milking, oxytocin is released. Within a minute, myo-epithelial cells surrounding the alveoli contract, thus forcing milk out into the duct system. If milking is delayed past one minute oxytocin begins to clear the system and the let-down 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. Residual milk makes great food for bacteria. The more you leave in, the higher the chance for infection. (see Streptococcus below)
One of the best way to evaluate udder health is routine culturing (bacteriologic examination) of milk from any animal either showing mastitis or lower than normal milk production. Over time, these reports will allow you to arrive at a herd profile of the type infection present. Results interpreted on a herd basis rather than on an individual basis are of great value in managing the herd for maximum health.  
Culture reports will not be meaningful if the samples are contaminated. If the germ that ends up in the tube comes from your hand or from a teat that was not properly cleaned, you could be misled into thinking it was the organism causing your problem.  Contaminated samples are worse than no sample at all. Results of culturing must always be correlated with symptoms. If an animal has been treated with antibiotics in the previous 10 to 14 days as the results will usually be negative. 

Almost any bacteria can cause mastitis under certain circumstances, but most mastitis is caused by Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Escherichia coli and Enterobacter (Aerobacter) aerogenes.   It is not known why at times these bacteria become virulent but stress is certainly a factor. If a high percentage of samples reveal the same pathogen, this is presumptive evidence of a cause and effect relationship between the pathogen and a specific environmental influence. These relationships are not absolute but they do provide clues about where to look first for answers.  The following guidelines may help you match your problem to its cause.
Staphylococcus bacteria have the ability to invade living tissue.  Any physical damage, however slight, to body tissues opens the door for Staph infection. Of all the bacteria, Staph seems to have the greatest ability to quickly become resistant to antibiotics.  Confirmation of this lies in the high incidence of post-surgical, antibiotic resistant, staph infections in humans.  This condition is even known as ”a hospital staph infection.”
In dairy situations, two common causes of injured tissue that may lead to a Staph infection are improperly adjusted milking equipment and the use of irritating teat dips.  Frostbite, stepped-on teats and other injuries may also be predisposing factors.  Don’t overlook the possibility of trauma just because you milk by hand.  Hard stripping or milking entirely by stripping with wet hands can also damage the teat lining and open the door for Staph infection.
If you have an ongoing problem with Staph infection, look for anything that causes injury to the teats or udder.
Streptococci are not generally invasive but live on the surface of the udder tissue and in residual milk that is always present in varying amounts in the udder.  Strep infection is generally seen when good milking techniques are lacking. It can also be associated with stray voltage or any other problem that interferes with milk let-down. 
If you have an ongoing problem with Strep infection, look first for anything that interferes with “let-down”, “milk–out” or anything else that increases residual milk.
Escherichia coli … known as the manure bacteria …  is found in all feces. Thus, mastitis caused by this bacteria is usually associated with unsanitary conditions. Some observations seem to indicate a higher incidence of E. coli when the ration contains excess protein, high levels of nitrates in feed or water or the addition of urea or other NPN’s to the ration.
If you have an ongoing problem with E. coli infection, look for anything that causes unsanitary conditions and check the water for nitrates and the feed for nitrates or excess protein.
Enterobacter (formerly Aerobacter) aerogenes is often related to contaminated drinking water especially if animals have access to unsanitary water tanks, ponds, streams or puddles in the barnyard.  
If you have an ongoing problem with this infection, first check for the possibility of a contaminated water supply.    
Some laboratories report E. Coli, Enterobacter and other Gram-negative simply as “coliforms.” If a culture report lists any of these, I would strongly suggest culturing the water if you have not already done so.  If the water is contaminated, remedial action should be taken at once. 
Corynebacterium mastitis is sometimes seen in herds that have a problem with abscesses.