Udder edema more costly than you think

As cattle transition to milking, a massive udder transformation occurs, even lying time can be affected.

As dairy cows today have so much genetic potential for milk production, more dairy producers are taking notice of udder edema, even in cows and first-lactation heifers that do not show obvious signs of swelling. They are seeing how a focus on comfortable udders during transition through calving into lactation affects performance.

In fact, a 2021 review of the literature in the Journal of Dairy Science (Vol. 104, Issue 6) looked specifically at the prevalence of udder edema and the factors associated with it, suggesting udder edema is becoming an “emerging animal welfare issue” in addition to being “quite costly” to the dairy operation.

The graduate student review by Cora Okkema, along with animal scientist and animal well-being expert Temple Grandin, calls for the development of scientifically validated udder edema scoring tools. It also addresses multiple factors that contribute to udder edema and the secondary risk factors from the condition, 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 JDS review states.

“Physiological edema is not the result of an infectious condition such as mastitis,” the review observes. “Nevertheless, dairy cattle with udder edema exhibit negative behaviors similar to those observed in mastitis cases, such as decreased lying time, frequent stepping in the parlor and udders and teats that are sensitive to the touch. Udder edema can have detrimental effects on the structural integrity of the udder and teats, which then increases the risk of mastitis.”

While udder edema is designated as a noninfectious disorder, which may be present in a high percentage of dairy cows, especially first-calving animals. The review cites factors associated with udder edema including genetics, nutrition, oxidative stress and the physiological changes that occur around calving time, especially for first-calving two-year-olds.

Some of the identified secondary concerns resulting from udder edema, according to the JDS review by Okkema and Grandin, include:

— Negative effect on the productive life of a dairy cow,

— Broken down udder support structures due to tissue damage, including damage to the suspensory ligaments and attachments, 

— Swollen teats that become sensitive, which makes attaching the milking unit more difficult,

— Decreased amount of milk produced due to fluid buildup in the tissue spaces,

— Increased risk of secondary diseases, such as mastitis or udder cleft dermatitis (udder scald).

— Combined economic impact on the dairy operation, in both the short term and the long term, and, if severe, damage that can lead to early culling.

There are many aspects to the management of cow comfort, milk quality, and udder health. Udder edema is one of them, the researchers conclude.

When discussing “economically significant” post-calving conditions, the focus tends to be on the changes occurring in the rumen and the uterus during transition.

However, the udder also goes through major changes at this time when transitioning from a dry cow or non-milking heifer through calving and into lactation. Two economically significant post-calving conditions are udder edema and udder scald.

The JDS review by Okkema and Grandin links the two, finding that one of the identified concerns resulting from udder edema is this occurrence of dermatitis, also known as udder scald.

In 2012, researchers at the University of Minnesota described udder scald as “a moist, foul-smelling dermatitis found between the udder and upper thigh or between the udder halves.”

Taken together, these two related conditions – udder edema and udder scald — were shown in a 2010 University of Minnesota and University of Illinois collaborative paper to have more economic significance than any other post-calving condition.

The Minnesota-Illinois researchers deem udder scald to be one of the most costly post-calving conditions 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.

In fact, the researchers ranked udder scald second only to digestive disorders (Table 1) among the top-8 most economically significant post-calving conditions.

“Very little is known about the exact cause of udder scald,” the collaborating researchers state.

They also note that, “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 yield losses, averaging 681 pounds of lactation milk per afflicted animal.

What’s worse, the condition often goes unnoticed until it is a significant issue because the dermatitis occurs in a relatively hidden area.

What can be done to lessen or prevent udder scald? The Minnesota-Illinois researchers give these three top recommendations:

— Control udder edema, especially in first-calf heifers,

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

— 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 also statistically significant and ranked in the Minnesota-Illinois study ahead of ketosis and metritis as the 6th most costly post-calving condition.

The Minnesota-Illinois study attributes an average 316 pounds of lactation yield loss to udder edema (Table 1).

With udder scald ranking 2nd in terms of lactation milk yield losses (681 lbs) and udder edema ranking 6th (316 lbs) — along with the observation that udder edema can be a contributing factor in fresh animals developing udder scald — the combined lactation yield losses of udder edema and udder scald together would rank 1st in economic cost with combined milk yield losses averaging almost 1000 pounds.

Add to this the costly impacts of secondary concerns in future health and reproduction discussed in the JDS review of udder edema as a costly animal welfare issue, and it becomes clear that udder edema is getting more notice.

The trouble with udder edema and udder scald is that the comfort and economic impact can both be negative for the cow and the dairy even when these conditions are not visibly obvious. Udder edema can affect the animal even when visible swelling may not appear to be excessive.

Add to this the fact that udder scald appears in areas not easily visible, and the result is the potential for animal well being and dairy profitability impacts that are not obvious.

Chuck Worden of Wormont Dairy, Cassville, New York has a pragmatic view of this “massive transformation” going on in the udder from one week pre-calving to two weeks post-calving. At this time, the cow sheds 150 pounds of calf, placenta and fluid and goes from eating 25 pounds of dry matter intake consisting of straw and corn silage and supplements to eating 50 pounds of DMI consisting of haylage, corn silage, grains and supplements, he observes.

In that three week period, “she starts with a collapsed dry udder and goes to an udder full of milk producing near 100% of her genetic potential,” Worden points out. “When she is doing her part, we’ve got to be doing ours.”

There are many transition cow protocols that focus on the uterus and the rumen. Worden notes that it’s also important to acknowledge “the massive transformation also taking place in the udder.

“Many cows can appear to go through this transformation without any assistance, but what’s really going on? We may not notice it until something does go wrong, and then it cascades into a plethora of problems that can and often do eliminate cows from the herd,” he observes.

“Applying Udder Comfort to the udder just prior to and for a period of time after calving helps increase blood flow and thus starts the process of edema removal from within the tissue of the mammary system, ” he observes. “Although this occurs naturally over a period of several weeks on its own, there are huge benefits in helping the udder return to a more normal state, more quickly.”

Worden has used Udder Comfort in his fresh cow routine since 2006. More recently, since 2017, he has consulted with other dairy producers to adopt fresh cow routines with Udder Comfort that make sense for their operations.

“We have seen the evidence that these applications of Udder Comfort, to soften and soothe, help a cow reach genetic peak production more quickly while also reducing her discomfort and stress,” Worden observes, noting that the increased circulation and removal of edema help the udder become softer and more pliable, faster.

He recommends focusing a light application of Udder Comfort on the suspensory ligament, spraying it on the bottom part of the rear-udder forward to the front of the fore-udder.

“Doing this twice a day for five to seven days post-calving has made a difference. The removal of edema allows the udder to be ready to handle and accept the volumes of milk the cow genetically can express,” says Worden, noting that on groups of first-lactation heifers, a response of 2.6 to 4 pounds of milk was seen by 14 days in milk and those groups had lower average SCC.

On both robotic and conventional dairies across the U.S., with herds of 50 cows to 12,000 cows, more dairy owners and managers today are reporting similar benefits by routinely focusing on fresh cow comfort to avoid the cascade of events that can occur from udder edema – even when the swelling is not so obvious.

While the lotion and spray bottles are used by dairy producers milking in tiestalls and parlors, the adoption of a fresh start protocol on very large herds as well as in robotic milking facilities is more challenging. 

One way producers are accomplishing this is with the Udder Comfort Battery-Operated Backpack Sprayer, which makes it possible to implement the fresh start routine out in closeup, maternity and fresh cow pens, freestalls or headlocks when application in a milking parlor or tiestall is not possible or not preferred.

Josh Lingen of Lingen Dairy, Balaton, Minnesota is among the many dairy producers who have transitioned from parlor milking to a voluntary robotic milking system. He manages the family’s 340-cow herd with five robots. The herd averages 90 pounds of energy-corrected milk per cow per day with somatic cell counts (SCC) averaging 150,000.

“We have been using Udder Comfort for at least eight years, first in the parlor as a routine on all fresh cows two to three times a day for four to five days after calving. Since transitioning completely to all robotic milking, we do these applications on our close-up groups, before calving. The battery-operated backpack sprayer from Udder Comfort makes it so we can apply the product anywhere. We can line up a big group, and it’s easy to go through and spray them,” says Lingen, confirming they spray udders once a day for a week before calving.

“We notice our cows, especially two-year-olds, come into the robots with a little more milk, are more comfortable, have faster unit attachments and milking speeds, and adapt to the robot faster,” he reports.

Chad Fredd of Grapeview Dairy, Westfield, New York agrees.

“Since it came out, Udder Comfort has been a tool we have relied on to help us achieve more comfortable cows, better quality milk and reduced mastitis. We have not used intramammary treatments on lactating cows in over 15 years,” Fredd reports. “The secret for us is getting the spray on udders for the first three to seven days fresh.”

Fredd milks 240 cows with four robots. They produce over 80 pounds of milk per cow per day with SCC consistently below 150,000.

He recalls when he made the transition from parlor milking to the robotic system, the use of Udder Comfort became more of a challenge in the ‘hands-off’ voluntary milking.

“The Udder Comfort Battery-Operated Backpack Sprayer allows us to get the results we want by applying the product at the feedbunk or in the stalls, in the fresh or hospital pen, springer pen, anywhere — without disruption and away from the robot,” Fredd explains. “We find twice a day for three days to be optimal for fresh mature cows, five to seven days for heifers. Heifers that are more comfortable train faster to the robot.”

By Sherry Bunting a freelance journalist and regular Farmshine contributor.

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