This average SCC might look OK, but when analysed, it is not.
For example, the best 20% averaged 124,000, which is good, but the worst 20% averaged 320,000, with almost 10% over 400,000. This shows there is still a high level of infection among recorded herds.
When we take into account that it is likely the best herds are those being recorded, the SCC level in average Irish herds is probably far from being satisfactory.
Despite huge progress in reducing SCCs in the 1990s, there was a period of about six years when the situation became almost static, and got worse in some co-ops.
I feel the reasons for this were fairly clear. Reducing and controlling SCC levels is an ongoing process, but was not continued by many farmers. Many reduced SCC levels but did not get rid of the underlying reasons. They did not follow through with the Teagasc complete SCC/mastitis control programme, which has changed a lot over the past 25 years. This is a relatively simple programme, especially if you are milk recording.
There are always reasons for high SCCs, and if you can not identify them and get your levels down under 200,000, call in Teagasc or your co-op immediately.
Another reason for the slow progress in reducing SCCs since the 1990s was that Teagasc and some co-ops took their eye off the ball when most of our milk supplies improved within EU limits. The misguided top brass in Teagasc thought the SCC problem was solved, and directed the attention of the advisory service to other matters.
Apart from Dairygold and perhaps a few others, Teagasc/co-op SCC programmes ended. SCC/mastitis control played only a very small role in the many successful discussion groups at that time.
Also co-ops were far too slow, and too lenient, in operating meaningful penalties. And the SCC seasonal adjustment scheme which allowed farmers to continue to produce high-SCC milk was a disaster.
Animal Health Ireland, Teagasc, and co-ops are doing a lot of work with mastitis control. They have established the cell check/mastitis programme, and every farmer should follow it.
This programme is broadly similar to what has been developed by Teagasc over the years, and is proved to be highly effective when properly carried out. Its objective is to maintain a national average bulk milk SCC of 200,000 or less by 2020.
Personally, I feel this target is not ambitious enough.
Why wait another six years? We have plenty of replacements and relatively young herds. The knowhow is there. The only barrier to achieving this objective sooner is to get sufficient farmers to participate in the programme. This requires a more realistic number of farmers in milk recording, proper bonuses, and sufficient help for farmers with continuing problems.
In a recent RTÉ Ear to the Ground programme, top medics were dealing with the real dangers of antibiotic immunity in humans. They were in no doubt but that the high levels of antibiotics being used in farm animals is a serious contributor.
The antibiotics being used for dry cow treatment are under close scrutiny. Dry cow antibiotic tubes are mainly to kill any infections in the udder during the dry period. Many farmers also use a teat sealer to prevent the entry of bugs during the dry period. In reality, the antibiotic is doing no good for the cows with no infection.
However, the problem is that the vast majority of Irish farmers don’t know for sure which cows are completely free of infection in all quarters. Therefore, the general recommendation is to use dry cow antibiotics in all cows at drying off.
The ideal situation is to know the SCC status of every cow, and only use antibiotics in cows with infections, but use teat sealers in all cows.
About 20 years ago, I was in Sweden and a few other countries where this was general practice. Also, some Irish farmers are following this practice. On the RTÉ programme, Mike Magan, chairman of AHI, explained that this was the practice on his large, high-yielding herd, and is very successful.