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Opening the door with pre-calving herd health

Halden Clark for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 January 2020

How can a veterinarian best help a beef producer prepare for a successful calving season? Is it by prescribing a secret recipe of shots that will prevent all retained placentas, navel infections, scours, political ads, bad weather and taxes? If only that would work.

While a good vaccination program is important, I believe veterinarians can best help beef producers by utilizing our training and experiences to assist them in encouraging good stewardship of the animals, land and interpersonal relationships that go into making a beef enterprise successful. I will try to explain.

I had the opportunity to take a week-long class in Systems Thinking last August at the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management through Texas A&M University. The Systems Thinking discipline involves working toward identifying points of leverage within a system where changing something that may appear small can have dramatic effects downstream. The higher within the system the point of leverage is found, the more power it has to generate trickle-down effects. A strategic point of leverage in a system is how we think about our role within it.

For example, a cow-calf operation is a system, and how we think about our roles in caring for these animals is a strong point of leverage. I, like many beef veterinarians, am also a beef producer. If I view my role as a producer as a noble undertaking, full of meaning in caring for living things that provide a valuable source of nutrition to families around the world, which it is, then I will press hard to learn more so I can make steady improvements in the way I handle, feed, house, manage and care for cattle.

As calving season approaches, I’ll make sure the cows are averaging a body condition score 5.5 or higher. I will learn to judge body condition correctly by the flesh cover over the neck, shoulders, backbone and hips. I’ll provide adequate protein in the diet, which will support colostrum quality. My calving equipment will be clean and ready.

As calving gets underway, I’ll make sure that when I drop to a knee in the calf area (whether barn, pen, pasture or cropfield) and then stand up, my knee comes up dry, meaning calves will be able to find a place to lie down on clean, dry bedding.

I’ll devour groundbreaking information like the concept of pathogen amplification in calves that explains the success behind the Sandhills calving method in preventing calf scours. If I make a mistake and someone corrects me or shows me a better way, I’ll be humble and learn from them because I view learning to do this job well as a more important goal than boosting my ego. I will actively seek to learn what I don’t know.

The other approach

On the other hand, if I am uninspired and unclear on why I am still doing this dirty, cold and difficult work, then I am unlikely to go the extra mile in caring for the animals. My pen maintenance efforts will be few and frustrating. My cows might get too thin before I notice or decide to act. I’ll incorrectly judge body condition by the size of the belly, meaning I’ll be fooled by “hay bellies” and slow to recognize underconditioned cows. I’ll feel too busy to check and see if I am providing them with adequate protein.

Then, when calving season comes, my calving equipment will be missing and, when I find it, it will still be dirty from the last time I used it. I’ll be tempted to blame the troubles that follow on other people, the weather or a hot strain of crypto. If someone corrects an aspect of my cattle management, I’ll react defensively and with a list of excuses, making sure to mention how busy I am and how early I got up.

Obviously, this is partly tongue-in-cheek. But if we are honest with ourselves, every person has moments when they fall into less-than-ideal habits and patterns. It may seem strange to hear a veterinarian suggest that maintaining an “attitude of gratitude” will influence animal health and performance, but there is not a doubt in my mind that it will.

The right perspective regarding our roles in caring for cattle will positively influence every task, decision and interaction. It’s a highly positioned point of leverage. Veterinarians can help producers by embodying and promoting this mindset. If you consistently struggle to feel a sense of meaning and purpose in your work, take time to evaluate why that is the case and don’t be afraid to ask someone you trust for help.

If you want information on something you know you need help with, your vet can be an excellent resource. If you are a beef producer, it might be worth a few minutes to ask yourself what, ideally, your veterinarian’s role in the management of your herd would look like and talk it over with him or her. Here are a few questions you could ask to get the ball rolling.

  1. Will you rate my cow and calf comfort on a scale of one to 10? What would be the simplest and most cost-effective way to improve it?

  2. Will you help me make sure I am accurately scoring body condition in my cows?

  3. On my operation, what are the best and most cost-effective methods to implement the principles of Sandhills calving?

  4. Will you teach me how to safely tube-feed a calf in case I need to give one colostrum or fluids?

  5. Is my current vaccination program still appropriate? Would you recommend any changes?

  6. What medications should I have on hand in case I need to call you with a sick cow or calf during calving season?

  7. Will you help me think through my approach to calving and tell me if you see any pitfalls that might lead to animal health problems or wasted time and money?  end mark

Halden Clark, DVM, is a member of the University of Nebraska Beef Team.

Halden Clark
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