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Farm’s innovation tackles ‘unseen’ mastitis issue

Updated: Dec 28, 2022

North Yorkshire-based Metcalfe Farms has always recorded mastitis rates lower than the national average, but two recent developments have had a marked impact on further reducing cases.

Philip Metcalfe who runs the 1,300-cow dairy unit on this diverse family business with brothers David and Brian at Washfold Farm, Leyburn, is constantly looking to fine-tune every aspect of the operation to maximise efficiency, cow welfare and productivity.

A decision in 2020 to switch over from Green bedding (RMS) to sawdust, has had a positive impact on mastitis.

However, that followed what was arguably a more significant innovation after scrutiny of figures from the farm’s Uniform Agri herd management software revealed more mastitis in the front two udder quarters.

Philip says: “We installed a 72 point Boumatic rotary parlour in 2016 which has been running very efficiently, but we did begin to notice liner slip on some cows. However, we were not too worried as the parlour was working so well.

“But what brought things into focus was analysis of the data we were getting, which revealed twice as many mastitis cases in front quarters than the rears and I began to think the two factors might be related, possibly because of uneven distribution of the weight of the cluster and its milk and pulsation tubes, depending on the shape and height of the udder.

“So I had an idea of what might solve the issue. I didn’t believe it was anything at all to do with the parlour itself and have subsequently found it can be an issue on many different makes and designs, but something that many people might be totally unaware of unless they are closely monitoring and recording data, and making the time to analyse it.”

Philip engaged local design and agricultural engineering firm JF Hudson Ltd to help with a practical and workable solution, believing some form of support was required to even out the weight distribution across all four quarters and eliminate any bias between front and rear.

A Logical Move

“I felt it was logical that whatever we did, it needed to be linked in with the automatic cluster removal system and not involve the milking staff in any undue additional work as, of course, they don’t have much time on a rotary and I didn’t really want to reduce the speed of the platform.

“What James Hudson came up with was basically a pivoted support with the option of three slots into which the pipes are placed and with the ACR cord pulling the support back into its rest position in synchronisation with the cluster being removed.”

A number of prototype units were fitted to the parlour in late 2019. Philip says milking staff did initially find raising the support and deciding in which slot to place the tubes a little “tricky” under time pressure with a cow passing every ten seconds.

“But we have a very good team here and we engage with them in everything we do and why we do it, so they were willing to persist with it and soon were onboard with the idea and what we were trying to achieve”, he says.

“It soon became apparent after some design tweaks and modifications during the following year, that we had the concept right and the supports were physically operating in the way we needed them to, and so we then fitted them to all 72 milking points.

“We were then milking with them right through 2021 and it was clear that well within 12 months, front / rear mastitis cases had totally evened out. But the really striking thing was, when we applied a realistic cost to the support units, they had paid for themselves within three or four months. That takes into account the lost value of waste milk – and that was before the current uplift in milk prices - plus the cost of antibiotics and reduced milk output from individual animals while getting back up to previous yield levels. It totals about £225 per case, a figure verified by the Dairy Group’s milking technology national specialist Ian Ohnstad who has studied the performance of our support units independently.”

“We believed we had come up with something which could benefit many other farms,” says Philip.

The net result was a decision to patent the device and come up with an appropriate brand name for it, all with a view to marketing it.

James Hudson says: “We decided on the name Lactalign and for the purpose of patenting it and subsequently marketing it, we have had to come together under the banner of J.H. and P.M. Solutions.

“I feel that many farmers will not be aware there is any difference in how the weight of the cluster and pipes is distributed between the teats and I refer to it as the unseen bias. So we are now marketing it and have an installation on another farm which, like Metcalfes, is also an NMR Gold Cup winner.

“Basically, the supports are manufactured from high-density polyurethane and are pivoted on stainless steel brackets bolted strategically to the parlour platform whether it be rotary, rapid exit or herringbone. The cost is from £150 per point and that is the figure used in Philip’s payback calculations.”

At Metcalfe Farms, the installations have shown a 59% reduction in liner slip, a 47% reduction in kick-offs, a 65% reduction in re-attachments and a 50% reduction in mastitis cases in front quarters.

Meanwhile, a more recent increased expenditure on extra sawdust at Metcalfe Farms reduced mastitis cases overall by more than 25% from what was already a comparatively low level.

Philip says: “We had been using green bedding for 8 years, but in November 2020 after some mastitis issues associated with the product, we decided to switch to sawdust and a dressing of lime which saw some improvement in mastitis status. A year later I decided to increase the amount of sawdust by 50% involving more rigorous cleaning out, adding lime three times a week and that brought further cost-benefit.

Cell counts are running at 100,000 and five cases of mastitis were recorded in March this year.

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