Keep your dairy herd’s udders and teats healthy during winter

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Winter is right around the corner with already freezing temperatures and several snowfalls in northeastern Ohio — which means chapped and cracked teat ends are not far behind.

Taking care of the udder and teats during the harshest weather of the year will keep the cows comfortable and healthy, meaning less profit loss from subclinical and clinical mastitis cases and increased somatic cell counts.

The skin around the teats can take some wear and tear, but the teats themselves are a fragile part of bovine anatomy. They are the gateway to and from the mammary glands, allowing milk to flow out when stimulated, but they also keep out bacteria to prevent infections from occurring.

We all know that certain bacteria can take over a quarter or more of the udder and potentially create permanent damage, or at least cause the cow to be an unproductive member of the herd while she’s undergoing a course of antibiotics. Therefore, keeping the teats in tip-top shape during the winter can directly impact profitability on the farm.

Watch the temperature

When it comes to winter management, keeping your eyes on the temperature is key. Cows can tolerate temperatures down to -20˚Fahrenheit without the risk of frozen teats if there no wind or wind less than 5 miles per hour.

Don’t be fooled, however. Even when the temperature hovers around freezing, wind speeds of 20 to 25 miles per hour can also cause frozen teats (DeLaval). Keeping the cows inside or providing windbreaks can help avoid cracking and chapping just by mitigating weather effects.

Prepare

Parlor protocols can also have an effect on winter teat health. Before the weather takes a turn for the worst, it is possible to prepare your cows for the temperature swing ahead of time.

Keeping the skin on the teats flexible is important to prevent excess thickening during temperature drops and to prevent hyperkeratosis from occurring. Using a high-emollient post-dip can help precondition the skin for the weather to come.

Additionally, exfoliating the teats with a chlorine-dioxide dip can remove excess keratin from the teat ends, creating a smooth surface for easier cleaning and less pathogen colonization.

As you move into the cold weather, you may opt to switch to a winter dip if the threat of freezing is particularly high. There is a dry powder variety, which may be more difficult to apply, or a liquid that contains more than 50% skin conditioners, reducing the freezing threat because of their slow evaporation rate.

The latter can leave the teat skin with an oily or wet residue up to six hours; therefore, it’s important that the cows have a clean lying area so that their udders are not in direct contact with dirty and potentially pathogen-filled bedding.

Most winter teat dips are more expensive than the regular dips, and only provide added protection if the weather is extremely cold, so consider the benefits over cost before you switch the whole herd over from January through March.

Some folks have considered to stop post-dipping in the extreme cold to prevent freezing risk from low-conditioner-containing dips, but the reality is, the teats are still wet after you milk.

Post-dips with less than 50% conditioners will still moisturize the teats to some degree and adds protection against mastitis.

Salves and balms

I was surprised to read that the University of Wisconsin doesn’t recommend teat salves or udder balms because they tend to breed bacteria with their sticky nature.

Speaking of the stickiness, having bag balm all over your hands and equipment just sounds like an extra mess to clean up when there’s plenty other work to be done. Salves also tend to increase Staph aureus infections — not something we aim to do on the farm!

Plan now

In sum, start thinking about winter teat management sooner rather than later. Rapid temperature fluctuations are extremely damaging because the skin has no time to adequately adapt to the new environment, leading to thickened skin and cracking risk.

Minimize the temperature fluctuations to minimize cracking risk. Take care of drafty areas of the barn and block wind that may hit the cows directly out of the parlor.

Lastly, never underestimate the power of clean and dry bedding, regardless of the time of year. Preventing hyperkeratosis, cracked and chapped teats is certainly easier than having to manage them when they have already occurred.

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