Translating scientific knowledge for lasting change

Enhancing global food security, dairy food quality, and food safety by reducing mastitis and antimicrobial use on U.S dairy farms—that is the objective of an interdisciplinary project led by researchers at Michigan State University. Funded by a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the project aims to reduce antibiotic use among dairy cows by half and instances of mastitis in dairy cows by a third within five years.

Mastitis research team
Rubén Martinez, Lorraine Sordillo, Ron Erskine, and Andrés Contreras at the MSU Dairy Farm

Mastitis is the most devastating disease affecting adult dairy cattle in the United States and is the single biggest cause of antimicrobial use in the dairy industry. The practices that prevent mastitis— and reduce use of antimicrobials—are well known. The challenge is effectively putting these practices in place. A new approach to outreach and education is helping a multidisciplinary team bring solutions into dairy production through the Quality Milk Alliance.

A unique aspect of this project is the participation of social scientists, led by Rubén O. Martinez, PhD, professor of sociology and director of the Julian Samora Research Institute at MSU. Martinez and his team bring to the project an organizational perspective and expertise in bridging the cultural divide between scientists, the general public, and experts in the field. His group also brings substantial experience in working with Latino communities and Latino workers.

“The objective of this project is to significantly and quickly improve on the slow but steady progress we’ve seen in reducing mastitis in the past 10 years,” says Ron Erskine, DVM, PhD, professor in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences and the study’s principal investigator. “The sociologists are helping us take the science we have and developing ways to deliver that knowledge to the people who can make changes that matter.”

“If our training and technical interventions address the ways workers, managers, and owners interact, we’re going to make a positive impact on the quality of milk and reduce antibiotic use,” says Sordillo.

The dairy industry has evolved beyond small family dairy farms and it is now often not the owner or manager on the parlor floor, where mastitis starts and where much of the prevention takes place.

The project began with a survey and focus groups that provided an in-depth understanding of dairy farmers’ mastitis management practices and the barriers that limit the adoption of mastitis control practices and prudent antimicrobial use.

The survey data is being used to develop a Quality Milk Audit and a Quality Milk Audit education program that will train specialists and develop tools to serve as sustainable resources for reducing mastitis and improving antimicrobial stewardship for dairy stakeholders.

“The audit doesn’t only address traditionally targeted areas of herd quality milk programs, like milking proficiency and equipment,” says Lorraine Sordillo, PhD, eadow Brook Chair of Farm Animal Health and Well-being in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences. “It also identifies behavioral, attitudinal, and communication deficiencies in mastitis control and antibiotic-use practices. Working with the social scientists to determine how to bring what we know onto the parlor floor is the really exciting thing about this project.”

This knowledge will inform interventions to help dairy producers and their veterinarians become better “coaches” to employees.

“What our team brings to the table is an organizational perspective and an understanding of practices and systems on issues like the division of labor, hierarchy within the farm organization, and team-building issues,” says Martinez.

The team will be conducting assessments before and after the interventions in order to evaluate the degree of change in attitudes and behavioral practices. Dairy herds also will be tested to determine if this approach reduces herd somatic cell counts, the number of cows with intramammary infections, and antibiotic use.

An online educational tool, a cyberinstitute, is being developed and refined based on survey and audit findings. The cyberinstitute will deliver the free online segments of a science-based Quality Milk Specialist Certificate (QMSC) program designed to train and certify specialists to conduct on-farm audits and help deliver education to dairy professionals. The online segments are open and available in English and in Spanish to owners, managers, and employees. Individuals interested in certification will complete the online segments as well as additional courses and hands-on training at Penn State.

“This fall we’re beginning the pilot phase of audits as well as the initial training segments,” says ndrés Contreras-Bravo, assistant professor in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences. “Next year Penn State will train the first Quality Milk Specialists on-site. Audits will assess traditional herd health practices, as well as farm management and training systems. They’ll be used to identify practices that are functioning well and identify and provide information on existing resources for addressing specific problems.

Michigan is an ideal location for this type of project. Collecting data, developing systems, creating tools—this all requires significant collaboration across stakeholders.

“There is a strong alliance in Michigan between producers, dairy cooperatives, regulatory professionals, the College, and Extension,” says Erskine.

The study is national in scope and includes investigators from Penn State, Mississippi State University, and Florida A&M. Following the pilot phase in Michigan, the team will implement the project in other states. By that time, they hope the first cohort of Quality Milk Specialists will have completed the program.

This project represents a focused regional approach as a first step toward expansion into a national program. The audit tool, the certification program, the cyberinstitute—these are designed to continue on beyond the five years of the project.

This project is supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2013-68004-20439 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture

Posted: January 2014
Contact: Casey Williamson