The National Mastitis Council recommends that strong and thin disposable gloves, similar to what surgeons and health professionals wear in the hospital, be worn by everyone doing the milking on-farm. The purpose is to reduce the chance of spreading mastitis from an infected cow to a non-infected cow. Despite this recommendation and research data demonstrating their importance in mastitis control, there are still dairies and workers on dairies that do not use milking gloves.
It is important that everyone performing milking tasks wear disposable gloves designed for milking. This includes not only those workers stripping milk from cows but those people hanging milking units and especially those people checking for and treating mastitis. It is also recommended that gloves be sanitized periodically and changed as needed. Gloves should be thrown away at least after each milking ends and new and clean gloves worn at the beginning of the next milking. At larger dairies, depending on number of cows and hygiene in the parlor, at a minimum, gloves should be thrown away and new ones worn as each cow group is changed. In some cases, gloves may need to be replaced more frequently depending on type of infections, number of mastitis infected cows or hygiene of cows in the parlor. If drop hoses or spray bottles with disinfectant are available, gloves may be disinfected and thoroughly dried after handling mastitis cows and when gloves appear visually dirty, instead of replacing them with clean gloves. A key when disinfecting dirty gloves is to thoroughly clean and dry the gloved hands.
Although it seems like common sense, procedures are often implemented on dairies so that milking gloves are replaced by workers on a set schedule rather than when gloves appear dirty. This reduces the chance that a workers interpretation of ‘dirty’ is different than their supervisor’s interpretation of ‘dirty’. This may mean replacing gloves after each group, after working with any mastitis cow, before sampling milk for on-farm milk culture, after a certain number of cows or parlor sides are milked, when returning to the parlor or barn after moving cows, etc. Any procedure can work as long as gloves stay clean, the procedure is simple and procedure is followed by everyone. Keeping track of number of gloves used over a month may help monitor adherence to the procedure.
There are many different types of disposable milking gloves available and in many different sizes from very small to very large. On most farms, several size disposable gloves will be needed to accommodate hand size of different workers. In order to palpate the udder carefully to check for mastitis or to clean the teat and teat end thoroughly, the gloves should be sized to fit the individual worker. Floppy gloves on fingers make it difficult to do the job of milking well. Disposable milking gloves should also be thin so that the worker can feel the udder and teat through the properly sized glove. Quality milking gloves are thin but made so they don’t tear easily and will withstand milking.
It is important to store milking gloves in a location where the new gloves remain clean during and between milkings. In addition, if milkers are required to change gloves within a single milking, the gloves should be accessible during milking so that time is not required to find and get new/clean gloves. Plastic boxes with a lid sized for milking gloves can be useful for storing clean gloves. Several plastic containers may be needed to accommodate various sizes of gloves. It is important to keep the container clean, at least between milkings so that hands do not become dirty when accessing the clean gloves.
The reason for wearing gloves and their impact on disease control may seem pretty obvious but there are still farmers and workers who do not wear gloves for various reasons. Some dairies also reuse disposable gloves from milking to milking in order to ‘save money’. Most people milking have chapped hands that often become more rough and chapped over the winter months. The principle behind chapped hands is similar to the relationship between chapped teats and bacteria. It is more difficult to clean teats that are rough. Rough skin whether on the hands of the milker or teats of the cow, tend to harbor more bacteria, including both contagious and non-contagious types. Although risk of spreading contagious bacteria in the herd is more likely when milking with non-gloved hands, non-contagious bacteria, like E. coli may also be spread in a similar way. It is difficult to keep rough hands clean, like chapped teats, and chapped hands tend to contain more Staphylococcal bacteria like Staph. species and Staph. aureus that cause mastitis.
The more mastitis-causing bacteria in the environment of the cow, whether on the milkers’ hands or bedding material will increase the risk that the non-infected cow will become a mastitis cow. Use of clean milking gloves to perform milking tasks will reduce the chance of spreading bacteria from a mastitis cow to a non-infected cow. This in-turn will help to reduce the risk of mastitis in the dairy herd.
Medical professionals wear gloves when working with human patients in order to protect themselves and their patients. Hospital patients infected with Methicillin Resistant Staph. aureus (MRSA), are often separated from non-infected patients. The reason is to reduce the chance of infecting patients that do not have this particular disease. Medical professionals are required to wear protective clothing and put on clean gloves while working with the MRSA infected patient. When finished working with the MRSA patient, they are then required to dispose of their gloves, and disinfect their hands. When moving to the next patient, new disposable gloves are supposed to be worn. Many other diseases in hospitals, including viral and bacterial diseases can be spread by the medical professional to the diseased and non-diseased patient. Use of disposable gloves is a control procedure that is mandated to reduce the chance of spreading disease. The same rational, with research to validate its importance, applies to use of milking gloves on the dairy. The purpose is identical – to reduce chance of spreading disease from a diseased or mastitis cow to a non-infected cow.
Use of milking gloves is proven to work as one part of the control process to reduce spread of mastitis-causing bacteria if done correctly.
Use of milking gloves alone will not prevent new cases of mastitis. However, when used properly, and with good hygiene, including disinfecting and/or replacing gloves as needed, gloves can decrease the chance of spreading bacteria causing mastitis to non-infected cows. It is important that milking gloves are sized properly for each person milking and clean gloves are readily accessible to milkers’ as they are needed. It is also important to use milking gloves and practice good hygiene while working with fresh cows and mastitis cows. Clean milking gloves will reduce the chance of spreading infections within all groups of milking cows on the farm. When level of mastitis, especially contagious bacteria is higher, it becomes especially important to practice good hygiene which should include frequent replacement and disinfection of milking gloves.
Dr. Sandy Costello is owner and mastitis/milk quality specialist at Milk Quality Pays and provides on-farm milk quality consulting, training, and product and applied research to aid producer decisions. The mission of Milk Quality Pays is to ensure clients produce and sell milk of the highest quality while maximizing profitability from milk income and maximizing customer assurance of product quality, safety, and worker & animal well-being. Dr. Costello can be reached at 570-768-6140 or firstname.lastname@example.org.