Three Northern Ireland organisations have joined forces to launch a research project to tackle bovine mastitis and lameness in a bid to reduce the use of antibiotics in dairy cattle.

The project will be run by the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) at Queen’s University Belfast in partnership with AgriSearch and the Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute (AFBI).

The new approach will involve the use of mass spectrometry – an analytical method using sophisticated laboratory equipment – to develop a rapid diagnosis of mastitis directly from a suspected milk sample.

This will initially use laboratory-based equipment but it's hoped this could eventually form the basis for an on-site test to further improve result turnaround times.

The project will also explore the potential for the wider application of REIMS technology – Rapid Evaporative Ionisation Mass Spectrometry – in areas such as milk-quality analysis and the monitoring of lameness in herds.

The REIMS approach will allow for the rapid identification of pathogens would allow for more timely, targeted ‘narrow-spectrum’ treatments, potentially reducing the use of some of the most critical antibiotics.

In fact, researchers say that if rapid diagnostics also facilitate earlier treatment, the use of antibiotics might be eliminated altogether, further helping society’s battle against antimicrobial resistance.

Lameness study

As part of a PhD project at Queen’s University Belfast, milk samples will be collected from dairy farms which are part of the AgriSearch network and through AFBI from cows with suspected and confirmed mastitis, alongside healthy control samples.

The same project will also look at lameness in dairy cattle. Current diagnosis of lameness involves visual observation, whereas the project hopes to identify problems before they become advanced.

A longitudinal study to assess a naturally occurring molecule or gene will be conducted on a dairy herd using REIMS so as to identify potential ‘biomarkers’ that could flag up potential locomotion issues.

PhD principal supervisor Dr. Simon Cameron from IGFS at Queen’s said the project had the potential to lead to a "step-change".

“REIMS is a fairly new technology and we are constantly finding new applications for it. It has the potential to be a step-change in how we use mass spectrometry to address problems facing society and this project investigates just one of these.

“By being able to analyse samples more quickly, and in a way that is more user-friendly to the farmer, we hope to be able to bring the benefit of mass spectrometry to dairy farmers through rapid diagnosis of bovine mastitis and identification of the causal microbe," he said.

Jason Rankin, general manager of AgriSearch, added: “The responsible use of antimicrobials is of increasing importance.

"Having a rapid and reliable test to identify the pathogen causing mastitis will help farmers treat infection with the appropriate product and help minimise antimicrobial resistance.”