Udder edema is a welfare issue and more costly than you think

A recent review of the literature in the Journal of Dairy Science (Vol. 104, Issue 6) looks at the prevalence and factors associated with udder edema, suggesting it is becoming an emerging animal welfare issue in addition to being quite costly to the dairy operation. While udder edema is designated as a noninfectious metabolic disorder, which may be present in a high percentage of dairy cows, especially first-calving animals, the review describes the condition this way:

— “Negatively affects the productive life of a dairy cow.

— “Udder support structures may be broken down due to tissue damage.

— “Swollen teats may become sensitive, which makes attaching the milking unit more difficult.

— “The amount of milk produced is decreased due to fluid buildup in the tissue spaces.

— “Risk of secondary diseases, such as mastitis or udder cleft dermatitis (udder scald), is also increased.

— “All of these elements have an economic impact on the dairy farmer, in both the short term and the long term. If severe, damage could lead to early culling.”

The JDS graduate student review by Cora Okkema and Temple Grandin calls for the development of scientifically validated udder edema scoring tools. It also addressed multiple factors that contribute to udder edema and the secondary risk factors while citing udder edema as an area with great potential for improvement.

“Diseases of the udder greatly affect the health and wellness of the cow, the quality and quantity of milk being produced, the condition of the udder ligaments, and the longevity of the animal. Impaired lymphatic drainage and blood circulation results in inflamed tissues and tender teats. Udder edema is also associated with udder cleft dermatitis and increased risk of mastitis,” the review’s authors stated.

There are many components to milk quality, mastitis management and udder health. A virtually unknown piece of that complex puzzle is udder scald, which researchers at the University of Minnesota described in a 2012 paper as “a moist, foul-smelling dermatitis found between the udder and upper thigh or between the udder halves.”

Looking back, researchers from the University of Minnesota and University of Illinois rated udder scald and udder edema in a 2010 collaborative study of all economically significant conditions at calving. Udder scald was deemed one of the most costly in terms of early lactation milk yield loss, with 82% of the occurrences found in first-calf heifers at 10 DIM. Very few incidents were found past 42 DIM.

“Very little is known about the exact cause of udder scald,” the collaborating researchers stated. But they also noted this: “The dermatitis found between the udder and the upper thigh is often present in early lactation and is thought to be related to skin damage caused by the extra pressure against the upper thigh due to udder edema.”

The Minnesota-Illinois study showed that this early lactation condition of udder scald led to high milk losses, averaging 681 pounds of lactation milk per afflicted animal. What’s worse, they noted, is this condition often went unnoticed until it was a significant issue because the dermatitis occurs in a relatively hidden area.

What can be done to lessen or prevent udder scald? The researchers gave their three top recommendations:

1 — “Control udder edema, especially for first-calf heifers.

2 — “Keep close-up, maternity and fresh cow pens clean and dry.

3 — “Promptly treat skin lesions by thoroughly examining udders at and before calving.”

The first recommendation “Control udder edema, especially for first-calf heifers” also assists in preventing economic losses from the udder edema itself. The losses for udder edema, alone, were statistically significant and quantified in the Minnesota-Illinois study at an average 316 pounds of lactation yield loss, as seen in the study’s chart below.

Univ. of Minnesota / Univ. of Illinois collaborative study

With udder scald ranking 2nd in terms of lactation milk yield losses (681 lbs) and udder edema ranking 6th (316 lbs) — plus the observation that udder edema can be a contributing factor in fresh animals developing udder scald — the combined lactation yield losses would rank 1st, averaging almost 1000 pounds, never mind the costly impacts of secondary concerns in future health and reproduction.

On both robotic and conventional operations across the U.S., with herds of 100 cows to 12,000 cows, more dairy owners and managers today are reporting the benefits of focusing on fresh cow comfort. One way they are doing this is with pre- and/or post-calving applications of Udder Comfort, especially on first-calving 2-year-olds. Sprayable Udder Comfort and the new Udder Comfort Battery-Operated Backpack Sprayer make this fresh start routine as cost-effective and convenient to implement out in the closeup and maternity pens, freestalls or headlocks as it is to apply in a milking parlor.

— By Sherry Bunting

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