Somatic cell counts are indicators of milk quality, with milk contracts often specifying upper thresholds and rewarding low counts. Somatic cells are predominantly immune system cells, and can indicate if a cow is fighting infection. (It’s important to note that the proper pasteurisation of milk prevents any pathogens from infected udders transferring to humans.)
An intramammary antibiotic treatment is sometimes given to cows at the point where they stop milking for the year and start their ‘dry period’; it has been standard practice on many dairy farms since the 1980s. If a cow does not have a raised cell count or active infection then antibiotic dry cow therapy is unnecessary and teat sealant alone would be appropriate, done in conjunction with consulting the farm’s regular vet. Training to apply the sealant in the right way minimises any potential for contamination.
Many farmers are now working with their vets to assess the need for antibiotic treatment of cows at drying off, identifying specific animals that require treatment, rather than adopting a blanket treatment approach. By working closely with their vets, dairy producers have the potential to reduce antibiotics used at this time
Another potential area for antibiotic reduction is on farms with bacterial digital dermatitis in the herd where there will be at least some lame cows. Some producers might consider using whole-herd antibiotic footbathing to treat this. However, discussion with the herd vet will determine if it is possible to combine a programme of improving hygiene along with switching to non-antibiotic footbaths such as formalin, and only treating individual cows with antibiotics if disease emerges. By increasing hygiene and biosecurity levels, and applying non-antibiotic preventative measures where possible, a significant reduction in antibiotic usage on farms can be achieved.