U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


Date of this Version


Document Type



Journal of Animal Science, 2021, Vol. 99, No. 4, 1–10



This work is written by (a) US Government employee(s) and is in the public domain in the US.


Mastitis is an economically important disease and its subclinical state is difficult to diagnose, which makes mitigation more challenging. The objectives of this study were to screen clinically healthy ewes in order to 1) identify cultivable microbial species in milk, 2) evaluate somatic cell count (SCC) thresholds associated with intramammary infection, and 3) estimate relationships between udder and teat morphometric traits, SCC, and ewe productivity. Milk was collected from two flocks in early (<5 >d) and peak (30 to 45 d) lactation to quantify SCC (n = 530) and numerate cultivable microbial species by culture-based isolation followed by matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS; n = 243) identification. Within flock and lactation stage, 11% to 74% (mean = 36%) of samples were culture positive. More than 50 unique identifications were classified by MALDI-TOF MS analysis, and Bacillus licheniformis (18% to 27%), Micrococcus flavus (25%), Bacillus amyloliquefaciens (7% to 18%), and Staphylococcus epidermidis (26%) were among the most common within flock and across lactation stage. Optimum SCC thresholds to identify culture-positive samples ranged from 175 × 103 to 1,675 × 103 cells/mL. Ewe productivity was assessed as total 120-d adjusted litter weight (LW120) and analyzed within flock with breed, parity, year, and the linear covariate of log10 SCC (LSCC) at early or peak lactation. Although dependent on lactation stage and year, each 1-unit increase in LSCC (e.g., an increase in SCC from 100 × 103 to 1,000 × 103 cells/mL) was predicted to decrease LW120 between 9.5 and 16.1 kg when significant. Udder and teat traits included udder circumference, teat length, teat placement, and degree of separation of the udder halves. Correlations between traits were generally low to moderate within and across lactation stage and most were not consistently predictive of ewe LSCC. Overall, the frequencies of bacteria-positive milk samples indicated that subclinical mastitis (SCM) is common in these flocks and can impact ewe productivity. Therefore, future research is warranted to investigate pathways and timing of microbial invasion, genomic regions associated with susceptibility, and husbandry to mitigate the impact of SCM in extensively managed ewes.