March 31 2015 06:17 AM

On-farm milk culturing can lead to better mastitis treatment decisions that benefit you, the cow and our industry.

When it comes to mastitis, is there a way to reduce antibiotic use and, in turn, lower treatment costs, minimize days of discarded milk, reduce the risk of residue violations and make better treatment decisions to improve outcomes?

Indeed, there is: milk culturing.

"The industry has done a really good job reducing the impact of mastitis, but it is still a major challenge for most dairies," said the University of Minnesota's Sandra Godden, D.V.M., during her presentation at the Central Plains Dairy Expo in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Milk cultures can give us the information we need to make better treatment decisions, but many farms do not routinely utilize laboratory culturing. Why is that? Godden cited a few common reasons, including delayed results (2 to 4 days), the cost ($6 to $9 per culture) and shipping inconveniences.

An alternative to sending samples away is to do milk culturing on-farm. "It's a way to quickly differentiate mastitis cases into treatment and management categories," she said.

To set up an on-farm culturing lab, you need an incubator that maintains the correct temperature and humidity, plates with fresh media, and a person with experience in plating, culturing and interpreting results. You will also want access to a certified laboratory for the occasional difficult to diagnose case, Godden noted.

Some advantages of on-farm culturing are that it is simple, rapid and inexpensive. It also has relatively good accuracy, and the results are easy to interpret with some practice.

There are some downfalls to on-farm milk culturing, one being its inability to grow some organisms, such as Mycoplasma. It also identifies organisms at a broad, less precise, level (gram positive, gram negative, no growths). "If you need more specific diagnosis, this system is not for you," she explained.

Still, on-farm milk culturing has a place on many farms. "To me, it's a win-win," explained Godden.

"The farm wins because it reduces drug use, milk loss and labor needed for treatment while maintaining the future performance of the cow," she said. "As an industry, we are reducing drug use while still ensuring the health and care of animals."

Again, it takes the right equipment and well-trained people to properly collect samples, run the cultures and interpret the results. More information can be found in the Minnesota Easy Culture System User's Guide.

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The author is an associate editor and covers animal health, dairy housing and equipment, and nutrient management. She grew up on a dairy farm near Plymouth, Wis., and previously served as a University of Wisconsin agricultural extension agent. She received a master's degree from North Carolina State University and a bachelor's from University of Wisconsin-Madison.