The setting of thresholds for medication usage and disease management will help milk producers to get the most out of their relationship with the farm vet, says Owen Atkinson of Cheshire-based Dairy Veterinary Consultancy.
A herd health approach is very different from simply treating cases of sick animals as they arise, stresses Mr Atkinson.
Scrutiny of the annual vet bill is a good place to start, when making an evaluation of the farm’s veterinary services arrangement.
He says: “The threshold for annual spend on treatment medication should be set at no more than 30 per cent of total vet spend and that will include wormer.
“If the treatment medicines bill exceeds this amount, the vet should be consulted so that a plan can be implemented to reduce treatment spend and increase investment in disease prevention.
“This approach will require the dedication of both parties and a nutritionist may also need to be involved, but a keen vet will be willing to rise to the challenge.”
However, Mr Atkinson adds it is not always about spending more money on kit or infrastructure, and sometimes it is a question of changing systems. However, he says improving the environment is often cost-effective.
“If calf pneumonia is an issue, for example, antibiotic treatment might be costing £10/animal. If 400 calves go through a building each year, this would add up to £40,000 over a 10-year period. The money would be better spent on making adjustments to the facilities or creating additional space.”
Mr Atkinson adds that antibiotic usage will usually be a significant feature of vet bill analysis.
He says: “Farmers have had access to some very powerful antibiotics over the last decade, but the supply of new and better products is not endless.
“The industry is at the end of this line and the emphasis has to be on prevention.”
An evaluation of the incidence of milk fever may be another useful indicator.
“For most herds, action should be taken where 3 per cent or more calved cows have had milk fever over a 12-month period.
“This would include cases where animals display minor symptoms and have been given a calcium treatment as a precautionary measure. In herds with a slightly older average age, the figure is 3-5 per cent.
“For every one cow displaying milk fever signs, there will probably be four or five animals with sub-clinical disease in the herd.
“Many other conditions are associated with milk fever including prolapsed uterus, which should always be a job for the vet.
“Damage due to slips and falls may also be linked, as cows are more likely to have muscle weakness and become unsteady. Milk fever can usually be traced back to transition management problems and is best tackled as a team effort involving vet and nutritionist.”
He offers some advice on how to make a decision on when to call out a vet to a difficult calving. While these can be linked to milk fever, about half of all dairy herd cases requiring veterinary assistance are caused by a twisted uterus, he points out.
“There is a balance to be struck.
“It does not pay for farmers to battle on for lengthy periods when there are signs that calving is not going to be straightforward.
“There is still a lot to learn about twisted uterus and at present there seems to be little concrete evidence of positive solutions. Selecting easier-calving sires and using sexed semen would appear to be helpful.
“Twisted uterus does not appear to have genetic links and I personally feel that over-sized calves are the probable common cause.
“My theory is that for a calf with a large head, the nose may miss engagement with the opening of the cervix. If the head dips down, the calf will twist as the uterus contracts and the whole body of the uterus will flip round with the calf.
“A cow will only try and push the calf out when the cervix has opened and therefore the process is stalled. Sometimes, all a farmer will see is a restless cow, possibly with some membranes visible, but not much evidence of pushing or abdominal contractions.”
Mr Atkinson advises leaving cows to calve without intervention for at least two hours after the first signs of straining or membranes showing, with a period of about four hours for a heifer.
He adds: “If investigation after that period shows that the cervix is partly closed and the calf is far back, a twisted uterus is a definite possibility and the vet should be called. In roughly 75 per cent of cases, the outcome will be a healthy cow and a healthy calf.”
Mr Atkinson says new livestock purchases require careful management and, for example, batches of freshly-calved heifers imported from the continent may be naive to many of our common diseases, such as lungworm, BVD and IBR.
He says: "It is not sensible to pay for top cattle genetics, only for the animals to become ill and unproductive after purchase.
“I would always recommend working out an introduction plan with the vet well ahead of new arrivals.”
Mr Atkinson says the relationship between dairy farmer and vet is evolving.
He says: “Milk producers will always need to have a local vet on hand for emergency call-outs and some may be general practitioners. However the days of James Herriot are long past and science has moved on at a
“In the USA, for example, it is not uncommon for herd health planning to be overseen by a specialist dairy vet whose geographical base may be some distance from the farm.
“Arrangements have to be fair for all parties and there is not much money to be made out of midnight calvings and treating the odd sick cow.
“It will be interesting to see how a model develops for keeping this type of service sustainable,” says Mr Atkinson.