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How well do you know your herd health?

Chris Church for Progressive Dairy Published on 31 March 2021

Many years ago, when I was a “baby” vet, I was working with an old bachelor who milked 30 cows. During pregnancy checks, I asked how his calves were doing. “If I ever get a sick calf, I go to the liquor store and buy a bottle of whiskey.

I give one shot to the calf and one to me. She may get better, but if she dies, I don’t feel so bad,” he said. We can all see the humour in this response, but most of us can relate on other levels.

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He was the lone person in charge of all duties and could only handle so much. He had to prioritize his work and his worries, which can create a “you win some and you lose some” mentality.

As our dairies have grown, we are able to attract more resources – hired labour, milking and feeding technology, custom harvesting, etc. Dairies have become more efficient and better equipped to track outcomes. Pregnancy rate is a perfect example of this. With focus and effort, you can see your progress over time and compare it to other farms.

Most producers know their preg rate, but do you know how many metritis cases you had last year? Often, this still gets bucketed in the vague “win some, lose some” category. I have seen estimates that only one in 20 Canadian farms have an accurate handle on their disease rates. We can do better.

If I say the term “herd health,” what comes to mind? Vets would usually describe this as a routine visit to discuss any health or production concerns and to give reproductive examinations. Producers would likely say it is pregnancy check time. In most cases, the second is more accurate. Is there value in expanding your time to focus on other measures?

Listen, I get it – I can hear you saying, “I already have too much paperwork.” I hate paperwork too, or rather paperwork that seems meaningless. Maybe this can be different. Can you find an easy way to record health events over time? I can also hear some saying, “What good is it if I write it all down and no one ever looks at it?” Can your vet help summarize these events at the herd health visit?

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Here’s an example where we did just that. I worked with a herd of 200 milking cows, and the manager felt there were too many displaced abomasums (DA or twisted stomachs). Production was 38 kilograms and pregnancy rate was 25%. He also had excellent event records, so we could tally all the cases and add the cost of treatments and milk lost. I was shocked when I looked at the data.

Subclinical ketosis was 9% on blood meters (goal less than 12%), but DA rate was 6% (goal less than 5%) and metritis cases were 18% (goal less than 10%). He was unconcerned about the metritis, as he felt treatment was easy and cows responded well, but running the math painted a different picture.

DAs are very costly compared to metritis, but 6% versus 18% made the latter the most costly problem. The total cost of treatments, lost production and culling amounted to an average of $268 per cow calving. I still remember his response, “Yeah, but if we fix transition, it will fix both anyways, so I don’t have to be too focused.”

He did implement changes to the ration and facilities, and cost per cow dropped to $167, a savings of $19,380 annually. Interestingly, metritis improved drastically (less than 8%), but DA rate remained at 5%. We were able to link this to subclinical milk fever later, but that’s another story.

In conclusion, are you missing the health bottlenecks on your dairy? In the whirlwind of work, it is easy to become “barn blind” to all that is happening around us. Keeping some simple records and engaging your veterinarian can help keep score for health – much like pregnancy rate for reproduction. It’s time to sharpen our pencils beyond the “win some, lose some” attitude. end mark

Dr. Chris Church spent 15 years in clinical dairy practice and joined Elanco Animal Health six years ago as a technical consultant. He is currently studying for an MBA at the University of Guelph, focusing on the interactions of production and health on financial outcomes.

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