Written by Alan De Meulemeester (content marketeer)

Mastitis, an inflammation of the mammary gland in dairy cows, can significantly impact animal health and milk production. To effectively prevent and manage this costly infection, it is crucial to understand the associated risk factors that can contribute to its development.

A proactive approach that combines effective management practices with targeted nutrition is necessary to address mastitis in dairy herds. Farmers can optimize cow comfort, refine milking procedures, and use strategic supplements, such as medium-chain fatty acids, to improve udder health, reduce economic losses, and ensure sustainable operations. This integrated strategy is key to safeguarding herd health, maximizing productivity, and fostering long-term success in the dairy industry.

Key management and housing practices

Proper housing design and ventilation systems are crucial in preventing mastitis by minimizing moisture and bacterial build-up. Clean, absorbent bedding materials reduce bacterial exposure to teats and udders. Well-managed cubicles have shown to lower mastitis rates compared to loose yard setups.

Milking procedures

Milking practices, including machine function, teat preparation, and post-milking hygiene, are vital. Faulty equipment or aggressive milking routines can introduce bacteria, leading to infections. Regular monitoring of milking procedures and equipment maintenance is essential for minimizing mastitis incidence and improving herd productivity.

Animal Health Teat Health and Immunity 

Maintaining teat health is critical as teats are the primary barrier against bacterial invasion. Changes in teat condition can allow bacteria to penetrate the udder. Cellular immunity also plays a significant role in defending against intra-mammary infections (IMI). Differences in susceptibility to mastitis exist between breeds, with Jersey cows less likely to be culled due to mastitis compared to Holsteins.

Genetics and risk factors

Genetics play a substantial role in IMI susceptibility among cows. Older cows and those in certain stages of lactation, particularly early dry periods and around parturition, are more prone to infections. High milk yield is associated with an increased risk of clinical mastitis due to the metabolic demands compromising the immune response.

How can nutrition help?

Maintaining optimal immune function and health in dairy cows is closely linked to their nutritional status. Nutritional needs vary throughout a cow’s production cycle, and mismanagement can lead to health disorders. Proper nutrition is essential for increasing cows’ strength and resistance to mastitis.

A deficiency in vitamin E or selenium can lower neutrophil function, making cows more susceptible to mastitis, particularly during the peripartum period. Studies show that higher levels of vitamin E reduce mastitis incidence, while elevated selenium levels enhance protection. Low selenium levels have been associated with increased bacterial loads in milk following infection. Pre-calving supplementation with minerals and vitamins, especially selenium, has been shown to boost immune function.

High-producing dairy cows require highly fermentable diets, but easily fermentable diets or sudden shifts in nutrition can lead to sub-acute ruminal acidosis (SARA), whereby volatile fatty acid production overwhelms the rumen’s buffering and absorption capacity, causing rumen pH to drop. This disruption extends beyond the rumen, influencing mastitis prevalence. Research links SARA to mastitis, revealing how gut-derived lipopolysaccharides (LPS) contribute to inflammation of the mammary gland. In addition to depressing milk fat, SARA can cause increased permeability of the blood-milk barrier, gut barrier and rumen barrier. Further research has shown that lipopolysaccharides, derived from the gut of SARA cows, translocated into the blood and accumulated in the mammary glands. Proactive management, including nutritional interventions, is crucial to mitigating SARA and its effects on udder health.

MCFAs as a solid strategy

Feeding medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA) during the dry period and early lactation promotes a stable rumen environment, reducing bacterial turnover and endotoxin release. Endotoxins like LPS activate the immune system, consuming large amounts of energy. Incorporating MCFA conserves energy for an optimal immune response, mitigating the impact of negative energy balance (NEB) and fostering higher post-calving milk production. MCFA also positively impacts antibodies in colostrum pre-calving and reduces neutrophil apoptosis during lactation, leading to better overall health for the animals.

Conclusion

Combining effective management practices with targeted nutritional strategies is crucial for addressing mastitis in dairy herds. Optimizing cow comfort, refining milking procedures, and strategically supplementing nutrients, like medium-chain fatty acids, can enhance udder health, reduce mastitis-related economic losses, and ensure sustainable dairy operations. An integrated approach is essential for safeguarding herd health and maximizing productivity in the dairy industry, promoting healthier, more resilient dairy herds, and securing long-term success.

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Marc Intven
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