“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”: milking management and mastitis prevention

By Emilie Belage, MSc., (U. of Guelph) in collaboration with Dr. David Kelton (U. of Guelph), Amy Westlund (SPARK writer, U. of Guelph) and Hélène Poirier (Transfer Office, CBMQRN)

Dairy farmers have been dealing with mastitis for decades, and according to research, it’s one of the most costly diseases to the industry: about $4 million in losses each year according to the Canadian Bovine Mastitis and Milk Quality Research Network (CBMQRN).

Dr. David Kelton, researcher at University of Guelph is leading a research project, funded by the Dairy Research Cluster 2, on impediments to adoption of best milking practices. His masters student Emilie Belage working on the project, held four focus groups in Ontario, in the spring of 2016, to investigate why producers adopt certain mastitis prevention practices and not others. The aim of the study was to identify barriers preventing producers from effectively following a number of established best harvest practices at milking time. Each focus group consisted of up to 10 local dairy producers, who were interviewed in a group setting about their mastitis prevention practices and milking routine.

During the group discussions, some producers indicated that they lacked sufficient information or wanted more information about why certain practices were important and needed, especially when it came to training employees. Others questioned the usefulness or ease of implementation of some practices. Some mentioned if they had proof the practices worked and would increase their milk quality, they would consider including them in their current routine.

They found when it comes to udder health, risk perception influences management. In fact, producers’ ideas and perceptions regarding milk quality, as well as low SCC, influenced their motivation for prevention of mastitis on their farm.  For instance, some producers reported their goal was to maintain a bulk tank SCC of 100,000 cells/mL or lower year round if possible. Other producers preferred focusing their efforts on other issues, like lameness or transition, as long as their bulk tank SCC was between 200 and 300,000 cells/mL. It seemed that to most producers, if mastitis was not a current issue on their farm, they were less likely to prioritize it.

By nature, milking is a routine activity: habits and consistency are an important part of milking procedures. However, good and bad habits are hard to break, and perhaps without some kind of motivation (penalty or incentive) or re-training, farmers who are already producing, by definition, good quality milk (i.e. BTSCC of less than 400,000 cells/mL) will see no reason to change, or adapt their behaviour. In fact, most producers agree that “if their routine ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, producers shouldn’t be afraid to implement some of the recommended milking practices they may not be using. These guidelines were developed based on research and practices like wearing gloves at milking time, using automatic take-offs, and using a post-milking teat dip have been shown to prevent elevations in SCC.

The_UdderZone_final_Page_12-791x1024In fact, most producers agree that “if their routine ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, producers shouldn’t be afraid to implement some of the recommended milking practices they may not be using for mastitis prevention.


Kelton and Belage hope the findings will help to promote better access to information and knowledge in the industry, like designing new educational programs or tools that producers and their employees can use.


For more information about the project contact Emilie Belage at ebelage@uoguelph.ca.

This project is an initiative of the Canadian Mastitis and Milk Quality Research Network,  supported by a contribution from the Dairy Research Cluster Initiative (Dairy Farmers of Canada, Agriculture and Agri‐Food Canada, the Canadian Dairy Network and the Canadian Dairy Commission).

Status of Alberta dairy hoof health and how footbaths can help us improve it

By Dr. Karin Orsel, Emilie Belage {The original article entitled, WHAT CANADIAN COWS ARE TELLING US ABOUT FOOTBATHS by Karen Orsel appeared in the Blog Dairy Hoof Health

The University of Calgary Lameness Research Team has been hard at work studying the use and effectiveness of footbaths on Alberta dairies. While there is progress to be made in proper usage, the good news is results indicate footbaths are an effective tool in decreasing the prevalence of digital dermatitis (DD).

The Alberta Dairy Hoof Health Project collected data of 158 dairy farms. A total of over 40,000 cows were presented to the hoof-trimmer, and they found approximately 50% of cows had a claw lesion. Digital dermatitis (43%) was the most common, followed by non-infectious causes like sole ulcer (17%) and white line disease (15%).

The cause of most infectious claw lesions (DD, interdigital dermatitis, foot rot, heel horn erosions) is often multifactorial, but hygiene is very important to prevent these types of lesions. Footbaths play a very important role in control and prevention of infectious hoof diseases.

The research team evaluated some critical aspects of a functional footbath: dimensions, refreshing and refilling of solutions, and product(s) used. They found most footbaths in Alberta fell short of the recommended dimensions: often too short, too wide and not deep enough. However, they found most provided enough coverage to dunk the entire cow’s foot (more than 10 cm of coverage). Most Alberta dairies were using footbaths more than twice a week and product was refreshed after every 200 cows, according to recommendations. As for products used, copper sulphate was most commonly used on dairies as their main protocol, but some used formalin or a combination of both products.

This research team also investigated how implementing a standardized footbath protocol affected the prevalence of DD infections. The farms that used an intensive copper sulfate footbath protocol had less cows with active lesions and saw an improvement of present DD lesion stages, compared to farms with less specific and less frequent protocols regardless of product used.

“The optimal frequency of footbath use to maintain low DD occurrence, appears to be more than twice per week, regardless of which product is used”, says the main investigator on the team.

This research shows when footbaths are well designed and carefully used, the prevalence of active DD lesions considerably decreases.

 More research is underway to discover which footbath products successfully balance the health of the animals, humans and environment. The University of Calgary, in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin, is also studying in the lab how footbath solutions impact bacteria that cause foot lesions like digital dermatitis.

The University of Calgary Lameness Research Team includes Dr. Herman Barkema, Ed Pajor, Gordon Atkins, Laura Solano, Casey Jacobs, Emily Morabito and Charlotte Pickel.

For more results and resources from the Alberta Dairy Hoof Health Project, visit www.hoofhealth.ca.http://wcm.ucalgary.ca/orselresearch/what-we-do/lamenes

Key findings from studying footpaths:

  • Footbaths are an important component of claw health management.
  • Footbath location should allow undisrupted cow flow, and preferably allow passage of young-stock, dry cows and new additions to the herd.
  • Footbaths should have proper dimensions (3 to 3.7 m long, 0.5 to 0.6 m wide, with a 28 cm step-in height).
  •  Not all products available are equally effective.
  • Adequate frequency of use, and product concentration are essential.
  • Contamination of the footbath by manure reduces the effectiveness.
  • In low temperatures, the solution is less effective (especially formalin).

How a vaccine for S. aureus was discovered by a Canadian scientist

By Hélène Poirier, Transfer Agent, Mastitis Network – Interview with Dr. François Malouin, University of Sherbrooke, member of the Canadian Bovine Mastitis and Milk Quality Research Network.

PI Dr. François Malouin, assisted by TransferTech at the University of Sherbrooke, signed an agreement with multinational Bayer for the development of the vaccine. Photo credit: University of Sherbrooke

What were your primary research objectives when you started looking at S. aureus as a causal agent for mastitis?

The 2006 study that became a precursor for the development of the new vaccine was initially undertaken as a fundamental research project. Nothing could have predicted that 10 years later we would have a patent for the vaccine and another patent in the works, and that we can now announce that the vaccine is at an advanced stage of development with Bayer.

The S. aureus bacterium is found in many animal species as well as in humans, where it can colonize the skin and the respiratory tract, as well as other areas of the body. As a researcher, I had already conducted research on S. aureus in patients suffering from cystic fibrosis, who often suffer from persistent pulmonary infections caused by the bacterium.

Pierre Lacasse, a researcher with the Sherbrooke Research and Development Centre (Agriculture Canada) and a member of the Canadian Bovine Mastitis and Milk Quality Research Network, told me that the dairy industry could benefit from my expertise on S. aureus. That’s when I joined the national research group. The first research project for which I obtained financing1  focused on characterizing the bacterium in a context of intramammary infection. This meant being able to define which components (tools) the bacterium uses to cause an infection, and most importantly, to specifically cause an infection of the udder. We already knew that these tools, which are also called virulence factors (toxins, colonization factors, etc.), are often specific to the affected tissue during the infection. It’s rarely possible to efficiently observe the expression of virulence factors in a laboratory test tube, but in this case, we wanted to see how the bacterium behaves when it directly intrudes into the mammary gland tissues of dairy cows. Without this knowledge about the bacterium, in this specific context, we cannot determine how to effectively control it. It would be an exercise in futility!

What were your first clues, your first discoveries?

We succeeded in defining the transcriptome, i.e. in identifying the series of genes expressed by S. aureus in a context of udder infection. The bacterium uses these genes to produce components (tools). We established the list of tools employed by four S. aureus strains commonly found in Canada. They were found to be very distinct from those used in other infection contexts. The use of genomics enabled us to show that these tools are common to all catalogued strains of S. aureus around the world. At the time, our team used the expression: ‘’That’s it! We’ve exposed the villain!’’

How did you come up with the idea of developing a vaccine?

We realized that because we knew the specific weapons used by the enemy during a mastitis infection, we had the basis of a potentially very effective vaccine.

How does it work?

Once identified and integrated into a vaccine, the components specific to S. aureus are likely to provoke a very targeted immune response in dairy cows, which will protect them from all S. aureus strains. This approach differs from previous attempts to develop a vaccine against this contagious pathogen. It differs in terms of the relevance of components used in the vaccine (specific to the udder infection) and in terms of the potential coverage of all mastitis-causing strains.

Has the vaccine’s efficacy been demonstrated?

The trials conducted with mice and then with dairy cows were conclusive. Vaccinated cows, despite being experimentally exposed to a severe infection, showed less symptoms and a lower SCC. In addition, they maintained milk quality and production comparable to the control group. We believe that when it comes to naturally acquired infections, the vaccine’s efficacy would be even higher. Evidently, such a vaccine will not be able to prevent 100% of infections, but we do believe that it will significantly reduce the prevalence of S. aureus infections in dairy herds.

What additional steps are needed before the vaccine is marketed?

The success of our trials attracted the attention of pharmaceutical giant Bayer and an agreement was concluded in 2016 to begin development of the vaccine. The next step is the mass production of the vaccine. Clinical trials in dairy herds, in natural infection conditions, will then be conducted.

When can we expect to start using the vaccine on dairy farms?

The vaccine will be available to dairy farms within three to five years. Given the need to reduce the use of antibiotics in dairy farming and to produce more organic milk to satisfy demand, the use of a vaccine to prevent infection by S. aureus is the way forward. Our team2 is proud of its contribution!

  1. This research was financed by the NSERC, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Dairy Farmers of Canada and Novalait inc. as part of the Canadian Bovine Mastitis and Milk Quality Research Network (CBMQRN). A subsequent grant obtained from the Dairy Research Cluster, an initiative of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Dairy Farmers of Canada and the Canadian Dairy Commission, then contributed to the second phase of this extensive project. The CBMQRN is a national research network that includes about ten research institutions working together to improve the health of the mammary gland in dairy cows.
  2. Here is the list of individuals who contributed to identifying the virulence factors of S. aureus and developing the vaccine, and who are continuing work on the vaccine development:

François Malouin’s laboratory, University of Sherbrooke:
Céline Ster, research professional
Marianne Allard, then doctoral candidate
Christian Lebeau Jacob, then M. Sc. candidate
Julie Côté-Gravel, then M. Sc. candidate, now doctoral candidate
Diana Vanessa Bran-Barrera, then B. Sc. intern, now M. Sc. candidate
Charles Isabelle, then B. Sc. intern, now M. Sc. candidate
Mélina Cyrenne, then B. Sc. intern, now M. Sc. candidate
Eric Brouillette, research professional
Brian G. Talbot, professor (now retired)
Julie Beaulieu, B. Sc. intern
Alexis Dubé-Duquette, B. Sc. intern

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada:
Pierre Lacasse, researcher (Sherbrooke)
Moussa Sory Diarra, researcher (Guelph)

University of Montreal:
Daniel Scholl, professor (now with South Dakota State University)