Dairy Herd Health - Importance of Working with a Veterinarian

Published on Mon, 03/20/2023 - 10:02am

Dairy Herd Health - Importance of Working with a Veterinarian.

 By Heather Smith Thomas.

 With any dairy operation, it pays to have a good working relationship with a veterinarian who can answer questions and assist in herd health management strategy to help prevent problems.  This is generally more helpful, and more profitable in the long run, than just relying on the veterinarian for emergencies.

Dr. James England, University of Idaho, says the dairy manager and veterinarian can get together with a nutritionist regarding the overall health program.  “Nothing that the veterinarian can do or suggest will work very well unless the animals are adequately fed.”  Nutrition affects everything else—such as fertility and the immune system.

For best milk production, a dairy herd needs optimum health, fertility, cow comfort, nutrition, etc.  It is important for the dairy to work with a veterinarian on herd health.  Traditionally the veterinarian has been involved in pregnancy detection, and dealing with cows that don’t clean, diseases that impair production—everything from mastitis to displaced abomasum.  As dairy herds became larger, with more emphasis on production, veterinarians also help dairy managers come up with protocols to deal with disease prevention, diagnosis and treatment, and certain vaccinations at the proper time.

Herd health management must be a strategic plan, and re-evaluated periodically.  “It’s a moving target.  If you can talk with the veterinarian to see what’s available and what might be useful for various vaccines and medications, you can almost always save money.  Then you won’t be buying something you don’t need or that might be of questionable value,” he explains. The situation on each farm may be a little different.

“For instance, there are more than 400 licensed products in use as vaccines.  They all work but some target different approaches.  You should talk with your veterinarian about this, and go through the whole herd history, and management—and vaccination timing,” says England.

Dr. Emmanuel Rollin, Clinical Associate Professor, Dairy Production Medicine (Food Animal Health and Management Program) University of Georgia was in private practice for four years after getting his degree in Veterinary Medicine from the University of Georgia in 2007.  “Now I’ve been a professor at the University for 10 years.  Most of my days are spent on dairy farms, and many times I have veterinary students with me, teaching them about dairy production, dairy medicine and other things important to the dairy,” he says.

“I have a core set of clients that I work with on a weekly or monthly basis, on improving herd health and herd production.  We try to minimize disease and maximize efficiency,” says Rollin.

“This is a professional relationship, but over time it becomes a personal relationship because I get to know them so well.  One of the benefits on the dairy side is that they need frequent pregnancy diagnosis, so the veterinarian goes there a lot and we spend time talking while we are working with the cows,” he says.  This is where many situations can be discussed, and advice given when needed.

“From the producer’s perspective, it needs to be a long-term working relationship where hopefully both parties benefit.  Communication is the most important aspect, on both sides, to be clear in what they each can expect, and what they can do for the other.  Working together as a team, and with other dairy advisors—nutritionists, crop managers, etc.--and all the other employees on the farm, we can have a clear idea of what each one expects from the other, and it doesn’t have to be written down on paper,” he says.

“I think I’ve learned more from working with producers than maybe they have learned from me,” says Rollin.  It’s a sharing of knowledge and this can help everyone, including other dairymen.

“One of the things producers are looking for is the veterinarian’s perspective--from the outside and from his/her experience with other producers.  The veterinarian has seen what works and what doesn’t work in other situations, on other farms, in the past.  This outside perspective is one of the valuable things that the veterinarian can bring to the team effort.” 

Sometimes another set of eyes, or just looking at something from a little different perspective can also help pinpoint a problem or situation that needs attention—that might otherwise be overlooked.

“I think producers who see things every day get used to those and it becomes ‘normal’ and they may not realize that there might be a problem.  Or they might try something to solve a problem and it doesn’t work, and the veterinarian may have a different perspective and know of something that might help,” says Rollin.

“Or, the veterinarian might know of someone who already tried something similar to what the producer might want to try, and it didn’t work, and here’s why it didn’t work.  The veterinarian might be able to recommend something else.”

If something unusual crops up, the veterinarian can assist the producer in figuring out what the problem is.  “And if I don’t know what it is or how to deal with it, I tell the producer that I know someone who would know.  The veterinarian is a connection point to other people, other resources, and this network can be very helpful.  The veterinarian either has a colleague in the same practice who might be able to help, or knows someone across the country that he/she met at a meeting, who would have knowledge about this particular problem.  I rely a lot on people I’ve met at meetings or veterinary conferences and I can call or e-mail them and ask for their advice.  The producer may not have that ability to connect with someone to find the information needed,” says Rollin.

It helps to have a way to contact the right person.  “Sometimes that right person is outside the dairy world and may not be a dairy person.  It may be a swine veterinarian who knows more about ventilation in facilities, for instance.  There are many types of issues in which an expanded network of experts can be helpful,” he explains.  The veterinarian has access to a lot more possibilities and potential advice.

In order to have a good working relationship with a veterinarian, the producer must be open to this kind of team effort.  Dairy producers may have different ideas about what the veterinarian can help with.  “I have run across preconceived notions in the past, about what a veterinarian should or can do.  I don’t always fit the picture.  Some producers think every veterinarian is trained the same and knows the same things, but that is definitely not the case.”

Some veterinarians may be very interested in individual animal medicine, working mainly with just one animal at a time, while others may be more interested in general herd health or other things.  Getting to know the veterinarians in your area, and finding the right one to fit your own herd and the herd goals is also important.

“We are not all the same, which can be good and bad,” he says.  Each veterinarian may also have his/her own areas of focus or special interest.  And sometimes each operation may have different ways of managing the operation that may or may not fit a certain focus.  

“Some operations do focus on the individual animal and others focus on the herd as a whole, and this takes a different approach.  You need to find the right match between the herd/operation and the veterinarian and other consultants.”  It makes a difference, also, whether the dairy has 50 cows or 5000 cows.

The veterinarian can play a big role in training some of the managers in a large dairy, especially the employees who deal with animal care whether herd health, calving, or calf health.  “Sometimes the veterinarian can also provide a link that creates better communication within the dairy.  I have been to some places where I get to know the employees fairly well, and they will often tell me things or ask me things that they wouldn’t say to the owner,” says Rollin.  

“They may tell me about the problems they have and the challenges they have, and ask my advice.  When the owner or manager comes around, the employees know they are supposed to do this or that, and they will do it, but when I’m there they may have some questions that they wouldn’t ask otherwise, or seek my advice.  I really enjoy those relationships with the farm employees and can connect with them, often more so than with the owner—just because the employees are more hands-on in terms of what is happening within the dairy.”  They are the ones doing the work, dealing personally with the cows and/or the calves.

There are many layers and complexities in a dairy operation.  “Being able to communicate with all the levels is important—not just the owner or the manager but all the way down to the working crews,” says Rollin.