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Selective dry cow therapy: the right thing to do

by
01 June 2016, at 1:00am

Peter Edmondson highlight the need to tackle difficult issues head-on, approaching challenging conversations with farmers with preparation and clarity.

THERE IS NO DOUBT THAT ALISTAIR CAMPBELL IS AN EXTREMELY EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATOR. He was the master of spin working with Tony Blair to get difficult messages over to the public and to transform something negative into something positive. It’s interesting that he is the son of a vet – I wonder what influence his dad had on his communication skills.

Vets need to be effective communicators to be successful. We deal with all sorts of difficult situations from telling an elderly spinster that you have to put down her old dog who has been her sole companion for the last 15 years, to telling a farmer his herd has gone down with TB. We have to put the best spin on all of these stories to reassure our clients. It is very important to them and also us that we communicate effectively.

I was up in Scotland a couple of months ago and talking to some vets who were telling me that few farmers use internal teat seal at dry off. I asked if the farmers were worried about mastitis. It was clear that farmers detest clinical mastitis but tolerated it and sometimes the problem is so overwhelming they don’t know where to start.

So how do we know how farmers feel about mastitis? A Wordle is a great tool to use to nd out the most popular words that people associate with things. In the Netherlands, a research group asked large numbers of farmers to write down three words that they associate with mastitis.

The most commonly used words appear largest in the Worldle. You can see that the word misery is quite high up there in the top list of concerns. Mastitis is a pain in the backside to any dairy farmer: it disrupts milking, milk has to be thrown away, it’s hassle and at times creates a lot of worry and stress.

This year Arla Foods requires all its producers to be using selective dry cow therapy by April next year. I have to hold my hand up and express a vested interest as I advise Arla foods. Arla originated in Scandinavia and we know that there they have very strict controls on antibiotic use in humans and animals. 

If you are a dairy farmer in Sweden, a sterile milk sample has to be collected for bacteriology and sensitivity and then the appropriate treatment is started. In Denmark, dry cow therapy has only been allowed on cows where infection is known to be present; all cows have to have a sterile milk sample tested before dry cow therapy can be advised. Blanket dry cow therapy has never been allowed.

In Iceland and Denmark, no third or fourth generation cephalosporins or urorquinalones are used. In fact, Iceland and Denmark have eradicated BVD, TB, IBR, Brucella and so the incidence of infectious disease is very low. 

Reluctance or fear

So now we come back to selective dry cow therapy and a reluctance or fear of some vets to recommend this to their clients. I was talking to a farming friend a couple of weeks ago who had been using selective dry cow therapy for four or five years. To him it was a no-brainer.

How could you ever justify using antibiotics in animals which had low cell counts at dry off? It had a cost saving and this is particularly valuable at a time of low milk price. He uses an internal teat seal and had seen a reduction in clinical mastitis.

So let’s put out the positive messages on this. I think it is easy to persuade a farmer to use an internal teat sealant. We know that he will see a reduction of clinical mastitis between 25 to 30% and I have yet to meet any farmer who has stopped using a teat sealant once he started. 

It’s very easy to show the cost benefit and the payback is about 500%. In this day and age who could turn that away? Almost as good as betting on Leicester to win the championship! In a low- price milk environment, why would a farmer not use an internal teat sealant?

We’ve got things the wrong way round. In the UK the majority of herds use blanket dry cow therapy and between 50 to 60% of cows get an internal teat sealant.

We know that the greatest majority of cows are free from infection at dry off; just look at the individual cow cell count data to con rm this. However, the risk of dry period infections is high for every cow, especially high yielders and those that are housed or kept in poor conditions during the dry period. 

We need to do a spin. What we really want to do is have blanket internal teat sealant use and only use antibiotics where there is a need. We need to change the story.

Remember that blanket dry cow therapy was recommended when there were major problems with subclinical mastitis and cell counts were high. Farmers have carried on with blanket dry cow therapy because of habit or a lack of understanding that it is no longer necessary.

The UK national cell count is now under 190 and the number of herds with subclinical mastitis problems is low.

Blanket dry cow therapy was also sold to help prevent dry period infections. This was at a time when there was nothing else that could be given at dry off.

Now that we have internal teat sealants, that have been proven to be highly successful in preventing dry period infections, there can be no justification to use antibiotics for this. 

Also remember that using antibiotics in low cell count cows can increase the risk of coliform infections. 

Misleading figures

The success of internal teat sealants can be a bit misleading. We have seen clinical mastitis drop by 25 to 30%. However, about half of all clinical cases originate from dry period infections. This means that we have halved the number of dry period infections which is extremely good news, but we still have a long way to go.

One of the tools that is likely to be helpful in reducing this further will be the use of cabergoline, a dry period facilitator which has just been launched onto the market by Ceva under the brand name Velactis. This has been shown to reduce dry period infections and I am looking forward to trial data showing that this also reduces clinical mastitis in the following lactation and complements the actions of internal teat sealants. This will be another tool at dry off.

When I was in practice we had someone come and talk to us about approaching difficult conversations. Talking to a farmer about selective dry cow therapy can certainly be a difficult and challenging conversation. As vets, we often stop talking once objections are raised.

The key part is preparing for such a conversation and to be able to deal with the objections that are raised. If we prepare properly and believe in selective dry cow therapy, then we can reassure the farmer that there is nothing to fear apart from fear itself. This will help us persuade more farmers to move to selective dry cow therapy sooner. A practice team training approach can be useful using belligerent vets as the awkward farmer!

In our hearts we all know that selective dry cow therapy is the right thing to do and it will be the norm for the future where the focus will be very much on all the different ways we can prevent disease and reduce the need for antibiotics.