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Beef cows get mastitis, too

Early treatment can save the udder, and plan to cull susceptible animals

Even though we think of mastitis as more of a dairy disease, beef producers still need to be vigilant for the condition in their herds. With higher milk production and cows being retained in herds longer, both these factors have a tendency to increase mastitis incidence. Mastitis cases can be smouldering during the long period beef cows are dry (not raising a calf) and flare up right at calving.

Mastitis or inflammation of the mammary gland results in swelling in the infected quarter together with heat and soreness. Affected cows may have a guarded walk because of the pain. If a severe infection or when more than one quarter is involved the cow may be febrile (feverish) and depressed. The sooner we initiate treatment the better.

Treatment approach

Stripping (hand milking) out the infected milk together with systemic antibiotics such as penicillin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs ) as well as treatment with approved products into the udder is my preferred method. This has the greatest chance of success.

If in stripping the quarter out you detect air, these are often the serious infections. The bacteria produce gas with toxins and can be life threatening. Unlike dairy cattle where we must consider milk withdrawal this is not an issue with beef cattle so using the dry cow treatments is an option.

The dry cow therapies have much longer effectiveness. They pose a viable option for beef cattle, which may be harder to treat. Make sure you comply with any slaughter withdrawal times as dry-cow infusions have slaughter withdrawals ranging from 30 days and longer. Follow your herd veterinarian’s recommendations, as they may need to examine and initiate intensive therapy for cows that are very sick.

It may be necessary to poultice the infection to the outside if a large abscess develops. In severe cases the infection will wall itself off and the whole quarter may slough off. The cow may totally recover and the problem is eliminated for next year but we wonder if other quarters are predisposed. The cow probably should be shipped.

Calves seem to avoid sucking the affected quarter(s) so I personally don’t worry about them becoming sick from infected milk. Keep an eye on their flanks though to make sure they are getting enough milk. If the mastitis makes the cow physically sick their milk production will drop dramatically and the calf may need to be supplemented. In severe cases the calf may need to be orphaned to another cow as the udder may dry up completely.

May not be detected

Many times mastitis in beef cows is not caught soon enough or there is a smouldering infection which starts after weaning and becomes clinical when the cow calves the following year. These are chronic infections and the odds of clearing them up are very rare indeed.

My advice — either ship the cow or attempt to dry up the infected quarter. It has been found a three-teated cow will compensate for milk production and produce almost as much milk as if all four quarters were functional. Talk to your veterinarian what they would recommend.

There are many concoctions, which appear to work. Varying concentrations of silver nitrate, copper sulfate and other products have been tried. See which one has worked for your veterinarian. The most ideal time to do this is after weaning when the cow is naturally drying off.

When a cow is producing milk it becomes difficult to dry one quarter while expecting the others to keep producing. Once the quarter is chemically dried off it will scar down and should not produce milk again, thus eliminating the chance for reoccurrence.

In my experience two groups have a higher incidence in the beef herds. The younger, good-producing cows that have a tendency to leak milk at or around calving, and the old cows with the low-slung broken-down bags are the other group. Good selection for udder and teat confirmation goes a long way to preventing mastitis problems further down the line.

Cows with the larger — what I call “coke bottle” — teats are not only a bother because the calves have difficulty sucking but they often have quarters which develop mastitis. Culling older cows that develop the poor teat and udder conformation (broken-down suspensory) will eliminate problems before they develop. These cows become very evident at calving and it becomes labour intensive getting the calf to nurse. A good option is to move their calf to another cow if the opportunity presents itself.

Never ever cut the teat end off or lance into the udder to drain an abscess. The udder and teats have a very good blood supply and blood loss can be very severe, even causing death.

By proper selection of replacement stock with good udder conformation and being vigilant and calving in a clean area, mastitis can be kept to an absolute minimum on beef farms. If you do observe a case be aggressive with treatment on advice from your veterinarian as most can be saved.

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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