Dairy Global

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After decades of mastitis research, there are still a lot of unknowns

Despite years of research on mastitis and udder health, there are still many facets that need further exploration in order to get to grips with the disease. The development of an effective Streptococcus uberis vaccine and more knowledge about the bacteria that causes mastitis are just some fields for future study.

By Rene Stevens

The  research conducted into heifer mastitis and mastitis of multiparous cows is continuous. Despite an enormous amount of work done worldwide, there are still many questions left unanswered. The Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Ghent University in Belgium is one of the places in the world where scientists focus on mastitis. Under supervision of professor Sarne De Vliegher 'M-team UGENT',  a specialised team of researchers, want to bring udder health to a higher level and strive to increase milk quality. With the results from studies and research done by the M-team, the Gent University transfers science into practical advice for veterinarians, dairy farmers and others who are involved in udder health on a dairy farm.

Difficult and complex

That there is still a lot of time and money invested in mastitis research, fundamental and applied, is a sign that it is a difficult and complex disease. Since the 60s, many scientists from all over the world dedicated their work to this disease. More than 50 years of research did indeed give us more insight into mastitis, says De Vliegher. "The dairy industry has many tools that can be used to battle mastitis. Unfortunately they are not all used very well." The focus points of the so called 'mastitis 10 points scheme', like milking technique, hygiene and good management practices, are known at farms for years. Most of the farmers know how to keep mastitis problems at bay, but on some farms it still is a structural problem." De Vliegher doesn't know exactly why these problems still remain structural. Is it a lack of transfer of information or reluctance at a farmer level to deal with it?

"That said, it's a fact that there are many opportunities to increase udder health at the farmers fingertips." The level of management skills of dairy farmers is important and it's importance will only grow over time. Government and the society demand a reduction of antibiotic use in animal production. Dry cow antibiotics still account for most of antibiotics used at dairy farms. De Vliegher sees possibilities to reduce the use of dry cow antibiotics. At farms with a low infection risk and good management, selective dry cow treatment is possible and with good results, especially in combination with teat sealers. "It certainly is readily applicable, if it is done under strict conditions. The most important aspect is ultimately hygiene."

Absence of breakthroughs

Not only at a farm level but also in mastitis research, progress can be made. Conferences and congresses to share the latest findings on research and experiences from the field, like in August 2014 at the regional meeting of the National Mastitis Council (see box), are very valuable. However, the research can be done in a more efficient way, says De Vliegher. "I see possibilities for more collaboration between the research institutes around the world; it is only too bad it is not done today."

The governments and pharmaceutical companies have a responsibility as well when it come to new breakthroughs on mastitis prevention and treatment; the European legislator for instance doesn't stimulate the use of new products and/or new methods. The industry is therefore hesitant to commit itself to investing in costly innovative projects.

As an example De Vliegher mentions the bacterial flora on the teat apices. "On the teats' surface, there is an abundance of bacteria. Just like in the intestinal flora it is a mix of good and bad bacteria." De Vliegher sees possibilities in stimulating the good ones to grow so the bad ones will be pushed out. "In my opinion, an opportunity exists in that area to make a leap in udder health." Unfortunately the legislators are still hesitant to stimulate these types of innovative solutions, however they do take every opportunity to bring up the topic of reducing the use of antibiotics.

Vaccination promising

In the opinion of mastitis expert De Vliegher, the search for real innovations must include at least four targets: newer / better vaccines, new treatments that affect and regulate the immune system, better understanding of the flora of the teat and interactions in the mammary gland and faster and better detection methods.

"In terms of vaccination; there is a product on the market today, for Staphylococcus aureus, coagulase-negative Staphylococcus (CNS) and Escherichia coli and that's really good news. The dairy industry is waiting for scientific publications but the first results look promising. That said, it is very difficult to create immunity against the pathogens in the udder.  It appears that the pathogens evolve as well."

De Vliegher notices increasing pressure caused by Streptococcus uberis on the farms, and that is seen in many countries. It has to do with a lower level of hygiene on growing farms. "That's why it is really important to get a good vaccine on the market. But it still is a huge challenge."

Detection of mastitis

Reliable automatic detection of mastitis is needed as well, especially on automatic milking systems. A large portion of the cows with clinical mastitis are detected at a late stage. Therefor technical innovations are needed with new sensors or bio-markers. Research should deliver new practical and reliable detection methods, says De Vliegher. All in all, there are plenty of changes left for years to come. When it comes down to working with the farmers and farm managers, the biggest question remains how to get the existing knowledge to them in an efficient way.

M-team UGENT: www.m-team.ugent.be

[Source: Diary Global, Vol 1 nr 1, 2014]

Rene Stevens

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