What Are the Hidden Costs of Mastitis?
Profit-centered dairy farms need to cast a wider net when calculating the impacts of subclinical mastitis
Mastitis is the most costly disease to the dairy industry, estimated at nearly $2 billion dollars annually in the U.S. (Schroeder, 2012). When evaluating the costs of mastitis, many farmers think of the direct costs, those that occur immediately at the time of infection.
The most significant of these include the cost of discarded milk and treatment (both the veterinary service and cost of medicine). (Fig. 1) But many underlying costs may not be immediately apparent. These hidden expenses can be larger than the direct costs, encompassing issues such as increased risk of subsequent health disorders in cattle and farmers, long-term effects on milk yield and quality, culling, and high labor costs.
Risk of Subsequent Health Problems
Mastitis (especially subclinical presentation) increases a cow’s susceptibility to developing other infections or health problems. As its immune system is working to eliminate the mastitis infection from the udder, it puts the cow under oxidative stress, in turn leaving the animal vulnerable.
Both lameness and ketosis are associated with mastitis, but a more significant health concern is impaired fertility. Mastitis has been shown to result in low conception rates, increasing the calving-conception interval by 25 days (Carrier, 2009). A severe mastitis infection occurring in the early stages of a cow’s pregnancy may require a necessary abortion, or it could result in a weak calf being born as the dam diverts resources normally used for the calf’s growth to fighting the infection.
Effects on Milk Yield and Quality
The direct cost of discarded milk due to mastitis, and the indirect cost of lost feed during the infection stage, are certainly the largest detrimental factors associated with the disease. However, even if an infection is successfully treated with antibiotics for the clinical symptoms, it can still reduce a cow’s milk yield throughout the rest of its lactation period, and possibly, for the rest of the animal’s life. That is a result of the damage the infection inflicts on the udder’s structure and function at the cellular level.
Additionally, the high quality of milk a cow produces can deteriorate significantly following a mastitis infection. The elevated somatic cell count (SCC) associated with subclinical infection can change the composition of milk regarding the ratio of fat to protein. Moreover, the structure of milk proteins can be altered by a high SCC, which decreases the manufacturing properties of the milk. It, too, has a harmful impact on dairy farm revenues, as lower quality dairy products such as cheese and yogurt have less market value.
Culling cows is never a straightforward decision for any dairy farmer. Whether or not to cull hinges on many factors. If the cow is chronically infected, it poses a significant risk of spreading unwanted pathogens to the rest of the herd. However, if the cow weighs 90 pounds or less, culling it is an unattractive proposition. The conundrum dairy farmers face is the cost and availability of replacement stock. Although some of those costs can be recouped through the sale of meat from the culled cow, the replacement expense remains a significant financial impediment.
Other lesser-known costs that may significantly hurt your farm’s bottom line.
Most farmers associate labor costs with the initial time and staff required to administer medical treatment to mastitic cows. But high labor costs are also incurred by inefficient milking routines of infected cattle.
It is recommended that mastitic cows be milked last and with separate equipment, or in the very least, the equipment should be sanitized after use. Depending on the parlor and the number of employees, these recommendations can increase total milking times, thereby increasing labor costs, and forcing staff to delay addressing other important tasks. (Fig. 2)
Conventional mastitis treatment means administering antibiotics to the sick cow. Yet repeated use of antibiotics for chronic infection in any individual cow usually results in decreased efficacy over time. Eventually, it can lead to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant pathogenic strains.
Though it is the least discussed indirect cost associated with chronic mastitis, there is a human toll, too: the impacts on the physical and mental health of the farmer. Battling persistent infection, facing potential industry-related penalties, and absorbing income losses are major contributors to stress and depression.
Weighing the total costs mastitis gives farmers a better opportunity to address and minimize them by optimizing control and treatment programs, allowing for increased labor costs, and being financially prepared to absorb curtailed revenues as a regular cycle of business.
About the Author
Anna Schwanke is an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph, Ontario. She is responsible for researching and writing about a wide variety of topics related to dairy cow welfare and management for Dairy Quality Inc. The 10 years she spent living in Australia, as well as her love of travelling, give her a firsthand viewpoint of issues facing the international dairy community. She plans to graduate from the University’s College of Physical & Engineering Science in 2019 and pursue a career in the Life Sciences or Agriculture industry.
Carrier, J. (2009). Improving Udder Health: An Economic Gain. Retrieved from Canadian Bovine Mastitis Research Network: http://www.Medvet.Umontreal.Ca/rcrmb/en/imrimable.Php?P=166&tm=i
Schroeder, J. (2012). Mastitis Control Programs. Fargo: North Dakota State University.
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