Current Progressive Cattle digital edition

Working with a veterinarian for herd health management

Heather Smith Thomas Published on 28 February 2011
Cow in the squeeze chute

It pays to have a good working relationship with a veterinarian to assist in herd health management strategy and preventative medicine, rather than just relying on a veterinarian for emergencies.

The veterinarian can answer questions and help prevent problems, often increasing a rancher’s profit margin.

John Hall, an extension beef specialist with the University of Idaho, says there are several advantages for the producer when arranging a veterinarian to be a consultant in the operation.

“This gives the veterinarian a chance to help the producer look over the entire operation in terms of herd health. Together they can find any weak areas and identify places for improvement.

The veterinarian may suggest some changes and perhaps help the producer connect with other professionals – such as a nutritionist or extension agent, or even a person from the NRCS if there’s a water problem or fencing and water issues,” says Hall.

Every operation is different and there may be unique factors that should be addressed.

It helps if the rancher and veterinarian can get together with a nutritionist regarding the overall health program – to get everyone on the same page.

Nothing 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.

The rancher should sit down with the veterinarian once or twice a year and discuss any problems experienced that year or to ask questions about new vaccines (to know which ones he/she should be using).

There’s not a big difference in most of the vaccines, but the important thing is to make sure you’re using a vaccine that matches your management, production or health maintenance program.

By having the veterinarian as a consultant, you stay ahead of what’s happening, rather than dealing with emergencies after the fact.

The veterinarian is aware of new products that might be helpful. If there is a change in vaccines or dewormers, the veterinarian can make recommendations.

“One of the big problems is fly control. It’s tough to stay ahead of resistant flies. Veterinarians know what you might be able to use,” says Hall.

Today there’s a shortage of large- animal veterinarians in many parts of the U.S. “The reason we had so many large-animal veterinarians for a long time was the small dairies.

As small dairies dwindle in number, we have fewer veterinarians in many rural areas,” Hall explains.

“It’s a fact of life that the veterinarian has to feed and clothe his or her family 365 days of the year, just like we all do. One way he or she can do that is to charge a high fee every time you have an emergency.

Another way is by helping you increase your profit margin by having you pay for his or her expertise in certain areas – and possibly prevent those catastrophes,” says Hall.

“When steers are worth $1.20 per pound and heifers $1, if you save three more calves, or get three more cows bred, you can afford that consultation. Putting the veterinarian into a partnership role can pay off,” he explains.

“It’s hard for producers to become educated about health issues when the only opportunity is during an emergency.

Cesarean section in progress

It’s hard for the veterinarian to concentrate on anything else, other than ‘putting out the fire’ and dealing with the emergency. The producer wants to know how to prevent this happening to the next cow or calf.

During times of year when things are a little slow for both of you, you can get together and evaluate things,” says Hall. You can see what kinds of problems you had, and what you might do differently.

“It’s always good to get someone else to look at your cattle,” he says. When you see your cattle or operation every day, you become accustomed to how things look and might not notice something an impartial observer might see.

If the veterinarian is out there periodically and is familiar with the farm or ranch, he may be able to see changes more than the stockman can. The veterinarian can look at facilities and body condition score of the animals, for instance.

“A colleague of mine from Virginia Tech, Dr. Dee Whittier, addressed this issue a few years ago. As a veterinarian, how do you build a good relationship with clients and help them improve what they are doing, and at the same time get paid for your services?” says Hall.

At the Virginia Tech vet school, they started an arrangement (and also encourage clinicians to do this) whereby the producers they work with in their practice make an agreement to pay a set fee per cow per year – if they want to.

Dr. Whittier says that in return for that arrangement, the client gets routine veterinary services such as Bangs-vaccinating the heifers, preg-checking the cows, and routine vaccinations for the cow herd.

“The program centers around four events during the year, each associated with a veterinary visit or visits to the farm, such as breeding, preg-checking, calving and winter feeding,” Whittier says.

“Also included are one or two educational meetings they can come to that are just for clients in the program. At these meetings they work in small groups on any issues and problems.”

This prepaid package includes two emergency calls per hundred cows, per year. “The idea behind this type of program is to improve the welfare of the animals and improve the profitability of the rancher.

Another goal is to create some sort of stability for the clinician,” says Whittier.

The rancher gets several benefits from this program. You know what your annual cost per cow will be for veterinary services.

Most ranchers would only have an occasional situation in which the veterinarian would have to come out, besides the prepaid package.

This is very helpful when trying to prepare a budget or working with the banker. Also, the rancher and veterinarian are working in a consulting, preventative mode, rather than waiting for an emergency.

Another thing to discuss with your veterinarian is a biosecurity program. Where are purchased animals coming from? Are you keeping purchased animals separate from the herd until you know they are free of disease?

Do you run on range with other ranchers’ cattle? Other ranchers may bring in a disease that you should be protecting against. Learn about the diseases that could possibly be brought in, and know the risks.

A little money spent on consultation with your veterinarian might prevent a big wreck down the road.

“I tell producers that if they have the vet coming to their place to preg check cows near weaning time, and the only thing the vet does while he/she is there is preg check cows, you are wasting your money and the vet’s time.

If it takes half a day to preg check, hire the vet for the other half-day to sit down and go over things. Weaning time is a good time to evaluate the year,” says Hall.

How many calves were born and how many did you actually wean this year (from the number of cows bred last year)? How strung out was your calving season? What do the calves look like? What do the cows look like in body condition?

Your vet is probably more objective, looking at body condition score, to help you evaluate the herd. Today, a growing number of veterinarians are helping their clients with records and recordkeeping systems.

All of this adds up to a chance to fine-tune the health management of the operation, resulting in less losses and more profit.  end_mark


TOP: Invite your vet to observe your herd and practices when there’s not an urgent task, and you’ll pick up some valuable expertise for the future.

BOTTOM: A C-section is just one of the emergency situations where a vet needs to be present. But in these moments, the vet will focus on the critical task rather than observing your other smaller needs. Photos by Heather Smith Thomas.

heather thomas

Heather Smith Thomas