Dairy foods offer a bounty of health benefits and are consumed by millions of people all over the world every day. The quality of the milk used in these popular food products can be affected by the health of the cows that produce it.
Mastitis - an inflammation of the udder, mainly caused by bacterial infection - is the most costly disease affecting dairy cattle. It changes the composition and decreases the quality of milk produced by affected cows and also causes damage to the cow's udder. More than 80% of losses due to mastitis are caused by an unseen, or so-called subclinical, infection that can only be diagnosed in a laboratory and not in the milking parlour. This makes the disease difficult to control. While mastitis has potentially devastating effects, it can however be controlled through effective farm management.
The small-staffed, but highly efficient Milk Laboratory, which is part of the Department of Production Animal Studies in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria, is the go-to place for nearly half of the commercial dairy farmers in South Africa when they require diagnostic services relating to udder health in dairy cows. Thanks to its unique approach when it comes to ensuring udder health, as well as its meticulous administration and training offerings, the Milk Laboratory has earned the respect of farmers, the government and the international research community.
The Laboratory's fundamental focus is on improving udder health and ensuring hygiene in the process of harvesting milk, while staff also conducts research that is relevant to the current needs of the Dairy Industry. The Milk Laboratory is headed by Dr Inge-Marié Petzer, who has worked in this field for several years and has earned respect as a leading expert in dairy health.
Although the Milk Laboratory started off as a diagnostic service, it has evolved into a research-intensive unit. Part of its success is its impressive database of test results from more than 1,5 million cows, which provides critical information on bacteria, antimicrobial resistance against antibiotics and reverse zoonosis. This database enriches the feedback provided to farmers and the industry and also allows for a wide range of future research opportunities.
Dr Petzer maintains that the reason farmers return seeking assistance from the Laboratory, is that its scientific findings are put into language the farmers understand and are able to apply. Farmers are therefore able to learn from the findings and improve their entire system. As milkers are an essential component of a dairy farm, and also play a vital role in limiting the transmission of diseases such as mastitis, the Laboratory plans to produce training CDs and videos for milkers and farm managers. This material will provide a practical guide to the 'dos and don'ts' and will be presented in the languages of the milkers to ensure clarity and understanding.