Reduce Antibiotic Usage with On-Farm Culturing Technology

New gadgets and gizmos for the farm are great, but often times new technology can be costly and takes time to generate a return on investment.

One relatively inexpensive piece of equipment that may have a shorter rate on return period are on-farm milk culturing machines, which are typically used to help identify different forms of mastitis. According to Cari Reynolds, a research assistant for the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute, this form of technology can be simple to use, offers up fast results and can help keep money spent on antibiotics in your pocket.  

Though there have been vast improvements in milk quality over the years, mastitis continues to be one of the most frequent and costly diseases on the farm. And despite improved research, many mastitis cases (such as those caused by Gram-negative bacteria) won’t benefit from antibiotic treatment. 

By using an on-farm culturing machine, producers are given the ability to effectively identify the species of bacteria that is responsible for causing a mastitis infection. By knowing this information early on, producers can make better treatment decisions and minimize the chance of using unnecessary antibiotics.

Setting up an on-farm culturing machine is relatively simple and fairly inexpensive, Reynolds says. Typically, small models will fall into the $300-$400 price range with samples costing approximately $3 each. 

According to Reynolds, studies from the Journal of Dairy Science found that farms that made selective treatment decisions using on-farm mastitis culture results had the potential to reduce antibiotic use by 50%.

“Considering that the cost to treat one mastitis case can be up to $400, and discarded milk up to $100 per infected cow/year, having this valuable information at your fingertips will save you from unnecessary or ineffective antibiotic treatments,” Reynolds says.

How To Use

Though the thought of culturing your own milk samples may sound intimidating at first, University of Kentucky Extension agents Amanda Sterrett and Jeffrey Bewley assure that the process is actually quite simple. According to the pair, the materials you will need to collect your own samples include:

  • Sterile culturing tubes (your milk co-operative may supply these for free or reduced cost)
  • Cotton swabs soaked with 70% ethyl alcohol for disinfecting teats (storing these in a small re-sealable food storage container works well as long as it is kept moist with alcohol and kept sealed when not in use)
  • Nitrile gloves
  • A permanent marker for labeling
  • A cooler with ice or a designated refrigerator

To process these samples, Sterrett and Bewley recommend using:

  • A small incubator (set at 98.6°F; an egg incubator is a low-cost option, ranging from $50 to 100)
  • Tri-plates
  • Nitrile gloves
  • Sterile cotton swabs
  • A permanent marker for labeling
  • A designated waste bin for discarded plates and swabs (plates with bacterial growth are considered a biohazard so you will need to work with your veterinarian to find a proper disposal method)

Once the sample has been collected and tested, results can be determined within 24 hours. This is much faster than it would take to send a milk sample to the lab and wait for the results. After the mastitis causing bacteria has been identified, the proper treatment can be selected.

“Cows that need treatment (those with Gram-positive infections) can be treated once the results are obtained.  Cows with cases that will not respond to antibiotics (those with Gram-negative infections) may be monitored to ensure that they are systemically treated if the immune system is unable to fight the infection and the mastitis becomes toxic,” Sterrett and Bewley say. “However, the cows that fight off the Gram-negative infections successfully will not have been treated with antibiotics, meaning no treatment costs and no milk discard.”

If investing in an on-farm culturing machine sounds right for your operation, check out our exclusive DHM How To: Culture To Achieve A Bacteriological Cure video to learn more!