Has Any Progress Been Made In Mastitis Control?

Reporting from the 2010 British Mastitis Conference, Charlotte Johnston, TheCattleSite junior editor speaks with John Sumner, an independent dairy consultant, about whether the UK has made any progress in mastitis control since the 1960's.
calendar icon 18 October 2010
clock icon 6 minute read

Reporting from the 2010 British Mastitis Conference, Charlotte Johnston, TheCattleSite junior editor speaks with John Sumner, an independent dairy consultant, about whether the UK has made any progress in mastitis control since the 1960's.

Rapid changes have taken place in the dairy industry over the last 50 years.

In fact, since 1960 the number of dairy producers has fallen drastically from 151,625 to a mere 17,060 producers in 2008.

Over this same period, milk production per cow has doubled and in 2008 herd size was five times bigger than it was in 1960.

Throughout this time, there have been three major political influences that have changed attitudes and presented challenges for UK dairy producers, Mr Sumner said.

In 1984, the EU was producing 20 times more milk than it could consume. So, to avoid supporting milk product surpluses, milk quotas were introduced.

This was the first ever ceiling on milk production, Mr Sumner highlighted.

The next major political change was the deregulation of the milk marketing board in 1994. This was a major challenge for producers, who had to now think about who to sell their milk too.

This was one of the major drivers for improving somatic cell counts (SCC), said Mr Sumner.

Supermarkets dictated that they wanted lower cell counts, and this is what producers started focusing on.

Throughout all this, the continuing reform of the CAP, as well as the increasing size of the EU has piled up the pressure on farms.

All of these, as well as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), foot and mouth disease and the ongoing bovine tuberculosis saga, have affected the progress in mastitis control.


It wasn't until the early 1960's that any real progress was made on mastitis control, said Mr Sumner.

The International Dairy Federation (IDF) agreed that 500,000 cells/ ml in milk from a single quarter should be the SCC threshold.

During this time, the five point plan was also born and the principles of mastitis control were published in two easy steps:

  1. Prevention of new infections
  2. Reduction of infection


Against a background of structural change, interest in mastitis control grew. Stacks of free advice was given and within two years clinical cases of mastitis fell from 54 cases/ 100 cows to 41 cases/ 100 cows.

The level of mastitis in the UK was halved, which Mr Sumner said was of massive significance.

He highlighted that there had been a major change in the types of pathogens causing clinical mastitis. In the 1960's environmental pathogens were responsible for only 10 per cent of infections, where as in the 1980's, 60 per cent of clinical cases were environmental pathogens.

He explained that cattle housing played a substantial role in this. During this time, the majority of cows were housed. Due to a recognisable increase in environmental pathogens, a greater emphasis was put on improving cattle housing and cow environment.

A 40 per cent capital grant had previously been available to help producers. Many invested heavily in cubicle housing, which was appropriate at the time. These cubicles are now inadequate for the 'modern' cow, said Mr Sumner, due to the greater use of Holstein genetics increasing cow size.

Although progress was made in the 80's, Mr Sumner pointed out that at the first British Mastitis Conference, it was reported that a quarter of herds still had an average of 500,000 cells/ ml.


The 1990's were turbulent years for the dairy industry.

The early part of the decade saw the MacSharry reforms which put increasing economic pressure on dairy farmers, as market support was reduced.

In 1994, the UK milk market was de-regulated. Mr Sumner said that this led to different standards been set for milk quality by stronger positioned milk buyers,

The Health and Hygiene Directive also came into force in 1994. The Directive set out a maximum of 400,000 cells/ ml of drinking milk, which at the time 25 per cent of all dairy producers would fail.

It also set out a maximum of 500,000 cells/ ml for manufactured milk, of which 17 to 18 per cent of producers would have failed.

Mr Sumner said that the introduction of these standards was a massive financial incentive for farms.


The popularity of herringbone parlours continued to increase, 70 per cent of parlours had more than 36 units. Pre-milking dipping of teats to reduce microbial contamination remained popular.

Political challenges included the Agenda 2000 and the continuing reform of the CAP.

By 2000 there had been a massive improvement in cell counts, however there were still 40-50 clinical cases/ 100 cows.

Table 1 shows the dairy industry and clinical cases over the last 30 years.

Table 1: Progress in mastitis control
Year Herd size Milk yield (litres/ cow) Number of cases/ 100 cows Average SCC ('000/ML)
1980 51 4,670 54 469
1990 67 5,145 45-50 322
1980 80 5,800 40-50 191


We are improving, said Mr Sumner. The overall level of mastitis halved between 1960 and 1980 due to the widespread adoption of control methods. Since then, Mr Sumner said that SCC have continued to fall, until recently.

But why he asks have we not made any progress in 30 years at reducing the clinical cases of mastitis. Most recent surveys are seeing clinical cases of between 47-70 cases/ 100 cows, which is most concerning.

He also said that with SCC rising, the UK mastitis situation is deteriorating.

Mr Sumner questioned whether we have become a bit complacent.

What drives mastitis control?

Milk prices, legislation and welfare all influence SCC. But why, asked Mr Sumner, are costs such as £200-250 per case not driving a reduction in cell counts.

So what is stopping further progress in mastitis control? Perhaps the well established basic mastitis control methods are not being applied as well as they could be.

It may be that pathogens causing mastitis are becoming more difficult to treat.

However Mr Sumner questioned whether it is because producers are cutting back on labour and increasing cow throughput during milking, which is sacrificing good hygiene during milking.

Is the economic need to improve efficiency a barrier to mastitis control?

Finally, Mr Sumner asked why are we publishing the same information - 30 years ago we were urging producers to keep cubicle beds dry. Why haven't these messages got across to the industry - is the way we are communicating with producers effective?


Considerable progress has been made in reducing cell counts since the 1960's, but clinical cases still remain a severe welfare and economic problem. Huge commitments and financial incentives have been made, however the UK is not making the progress it should be. There are many tools for controlling mastitis available, however perhaps there is a need to go back to the basics, concluded Mr Sumner.

October 2010
© 2000 - 2024 - Global Ag Media. All Rights Reserved | No part of this site may be reproduced without permission.