A South Auckland company’s simple, accurate and low cost on-farm diagnostic kit could revolutionise the way dairy farmers screen cows for mastitis – a condition which hits New Zealand’s valuable dairy industry with huge costs each year in lost milk and herd treatment.
Leon Spurrell is co-director of Biofilm Research Laboratories, based in Onehunga, which has developed the CHECK-UP tool for its dairy focused company, Farm Medix Ltd.
He shakes his head when he thinks about the common current industry approach of using dry cow therapy (DCT) at the end of lactation, and the administration of antibiotics to cows with clinical mastitis without knowing what the infection is caused by.
“That kind of ‘just in case’ antibiotics treatment, as in DCT, is unheard of in human medicine. Imagine every Kiwi being given a course of antibiotics each winter in case they might get a throat infection.
“While farmers have their reasons, including a ‘bit of insurance’ against a wave of costly spring mastitis cases, there is clear evidence that antibiotics are best used to treat an identified infection – not as a precaution,” says Leon.
He says global opposition to indiscriminate antibiotic use in farming has begun, and there is a huge opportunity to solve the mastitis dilemma with an innovative approach.
ATEED South Area Office research and development (R&D) specialist Paul Robinson helped Leon and Biofilm co-director Natasha Maguire obtain an initial Getting Started grant from Callaghan Innovation in 2013. The grant contributed towards a trial in selected areas of New Zealand to develop the best combination of test media for the CHECK-UP diagnostic tool to detect common bacteria in dairy cow mastitis.
The resulting refined tool – which uses a simple on-farm screening kit – has been evaluated by industry organisation Dairy New Zealand and has attracted interest from the international dairy industry.
Leon says the cure rate for mastitis in dairy cows is low – not helped by “hit and miss” diagnosis, and variable treatment methods.
Leon and Natasha’s first step was to investigate which bugs cause mastitis in dairy cows by asking farmers around the country for milk samples from sick cows, or their worst 10 results from regular somatic cell count (SCC) herd tests which indicate milk quality.
“What we found was startling. Some cows had been infected with contagious pathogens which could rapidly spread through the herd during milking. In other cases, the infective agents were organisms that will not respond to antibiotic treatment, such as fungal mastitis, algal mastitis, Pseudomonas and yeast.“
“Treating cows with pointless antibiotics wastes money – for the drugs, in lost milk when mastitis persists, and during the milk withholding period. Not to mention labour costs,” says Leon.
Natasha says their initial sample gathering was crucial as it allowed the duo to see if different geographic areas had different problems, and to talk to farmers about their concerns with current mastitis treatment methods.
“They all wanted to see more treatment success, and be able to make sound decisions ahead of mating and after calving,” says Natasha.
She says standard testing of herds and daily milk supplies gives farmers an indication of their animals’ general health. The big gap is the lack of information about the cause of infections.
“Farmers can send or drop milk into a lab, but usually a decision is made about which antibiotic to administer before the results are received back, which can be anything up to three days after the infection was identified,” says Natasha.
“By using CHECK-UP to make a diagnosis on-farm, control is back in farmers’ hands. They need a fast and easy process to enable quick decisions and the kit cost is about a tenth of a vet call-out.”
The tool allows farmers to swiftly identify common mastitis pathogens without a microscope and further testing. CHECK-UP can also be used by industry professionals, which reduces overhead costs, saves time, and usually makes further testing unnecessary.
Once the pathogen is identified, the treatment and potential sources can be established – lessening the chance of more cows being infected. The tool allows farmers to screen cows at dry off and use teat seal rather than DCT for cows with no infection.
Leon and Natasha went to the US National Mastitis Council meeting in Texas in January 2014, and learned their tool kit is at the global cutting edge of strategic herd management of mastitis.
They say goat farmers also have issues with bacteria in milk. Because goat milk is used in baby formula, there is great potential for CHECK-UP’s proven ability to quickly identifying E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus.
There is also significant potential to market CHECK-UP to growing dairy nations such as China and Uruguay, and in global dairy giants such as Australia, US and Canada.
Leon and Natasha say Paul Robinson’s help to secure the R&D funding from Callaghan Innovation was invaluable: “He made the process simple to understand and he has been passionate about the potential of the tool kit.”
Leon says: “We are excited to have developed a tool to save farmers money and time – both important commodities on a dairy farm. The industry in New Zealand is progressive and farmers here embrace technology which will help them, and the health and welfare of their animals.”
“CHECK-UP allows them to make decisions based on fact, which is always more sound than having a guess.”
Top photo: CHECK-UP test kit
Bottom photo: Ngahinapouri farmer Cherie van der Poel demonstrates a CHECK-UP test kit, with veterinarian Ursula Bruce (left).