Herd health planning: towards a more integrated approach - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Herd health planning: towards a more integrated approach

EMILY RACKLEY
visits a south of England practice to see how it is developing an integrated approach to herd health planning.

FINDING a way to encourage
farmers to fully engage with herd
health planning is something of a
Holy Grail for those in large animal
and mixed practice.

Veterinary surgeons can make a big
difference when it comes to developing
control strategies, improving cow and
herd performance and identifying
subclinical problems that could be
playing a role in the development of
clinical disease.

There are many ways to
demonstrate the value of this approach:
from the logical, such as
proving a return on
investment, to the more
marketing-led
approaches, such as using
testimonials and
encouraging the sharing
of experiences.

Data driven?

The interpretation of data from
programmes such as Interherd, Herd
Companion and NMR is integral to
many dairy farm herd health plans.
Whilst essential in determining a whole
range of performance indicators,
working out and reporting just what the
monthly stats are showing can be
arduous for vets.

Worse still, some farmers are
completely switched off by the mere
mention of all the various parameters,
however beneficial what they have to
say may be. That was the view of
David Coombs, principal vet at Cedar
Farm Practice Ltd in Ringwood,
Hampshire, and Wareham in Dorset.

He says that he felt that the missing
link was a system for measuring
performance that could be as accurate
as the “traditional” programmes that
farmers could also understand and fully
relate to but without the sometimes
mind-bending paperwork.

With that in mind, he has spent the
last three years collecting and
interrogating data from around 10 of
his larger dairy farm clients. He now
believes that body condition scoring
can be used to reliably indicate the nutritional status of a herd and how
that is impacting on reproductive
performance.

He has compared his data to that
collected simultaneously from the usual
herd health monitoring programmes
and has found that his method is as
dependable in identifying problems and
making trend-based predictions
regarding nutrition and fertility.

What’s more, the data collection
requires nothing more than a pair of
hands and takes no significant extra
time on routine fertility visits. “Body condition scoring is something that all
vets know about and can do – the
difference in the system I have
developed lies in how those scores are
used,” he says.

Important feedback

Communicating the data clearly and in
a timely matter is important. Farmers
get an on-farm verbal discussion of all
the relevant reports and findings and a
written report within a week. This full
monthly report details the last three
visits’ conclusions and what present or
potential future problems have been
identified.

In addition to the usual
management programme reports, this
provides an extra layer of assurance
about what is truly going on in the
herd. Helping clients understand the
significance of what has been found
and having five or six achievable action
points to work on provides the
structure for future improvements.

That makes it easy for everyone to
focus on those targets. Working on just
a few things each time means people
are not overwhelmed with the need to
change everything and can prioritise,
and revisit, those few key areas.

David points out that using BCS for
monitoring individual animals is not
scalable to a herd level. “I can’t be
chasing all the animals that I saw at my
last visit to BCS them again – it’s a
waste of my farmer clients’ money.”

Using a 10-point decimal scoring
technique to record individual animal
scores at routine fertility visits, it is then
the proportion of cows with a BCS less
than 2 in a set of pre-defined groups
(PD positive/negative, non-bullers and
post calvers) that David is interested in.

The issue of over-conditioned cows
(BCS >3-3.5) at calving down is also
one to watch, with subclinical ketosis estimated to affect 30% of
cows in the first 50 days of
lactation.

David has been able to
determine a set of
consistently reliable trigger points in
each group of cows that indicate
particular problems with nutrition,
affecting fertility and influencing other
reproductive problems. He has done
this by comparing his data to solid
markers of nutritional quality, such as
3.2% protein intercept graphs and milk
urea levels.

Years of comparison and a strong
degree of correlation between
identifiable problems indicated by these
standard measurements, observable
problems on farm and the BCS
proportion trigger points means David
has complete confidence that accurate
body condition scoring is a system that
can withstand robust scrutiny.

Working together

One of David’s most progressive
farmer clients, Tony Wonnacott of
West Park Farms in Lytchett Matravers,
has a keen interest in the impact that
specific nutritional strategies have on
his cows. Tony stresses that
communication is key.

“As farm manager I can tell David a
lot about the cows, but nowhere near as
much as my dairyman, so he needs to
be in the know and those channels of
communication must remain open.
Equally, there is no point my
nutritionist telling me something that
David needs to know and vice versa – the
cows pay all of our wages so it makes
sense that we all talk freely.”

Liaison with other paraprofessionals
is the only way forward, according to
David.

“The key is co-operation not
confrontation. I don’t see nutritionists
or foot trimmers as dangerous
competitors: we are all part of the same
team that can help clients manage their
operation more effectively.”

Having the same vet performing
BCS and herd health planning at each
visit is important to ensure consistency.
As David says, “The actual scores that
are given aren’t as important, so long as
they are being given in a consistent
fashion.

“However much communication
there may be between veterinary
colleagues, there will never be the same
uniformity as if a single person
performs the scoring at each visit.”

This requirement for a single vet to
perform routine visits is very attractive
to farmers, as Tony points out. “I
appreciate that sometimes a different
vet has to be sent, but it’s frustrating when you get asked the full history of
each cow at a routine or re-visit because
they have never seen them before – it
wastes time and things get missed.”

David feels comfortable charging
for his services, meaning that drugs can
be charged competitively, which is
important in the current environment.
The simplicity of the system means
that the charges to individual farmers
are reasonable but the practice remains
profitable.

Only 30 to 60 minutes of extra
routine time is charged for the
production of the report. When asked
how he originally “sold in” the idea to
farmers, David answered, “I just
started doing it! I talked about what I
was doing and why. The first report or
two were done for free and then I
started charging. As yet, there has been
not one complaint and I think it is
because the farmers can really see the
benefits.”

The way forward

David has high hopes for the future of
his system. The immediate priority is to
perform the necessary statistics on
body condition scoring data and
formalise the associations across
parameters that he has identified. He
looks forward to a time when vets will
use BCS as a standard part of their
herd health protocol.

He points out how the benefits for
younger vets entering the profession are
huge too. “If they can integrate this
way of thinking into their routine dairy
work from day one, the next generation
of farm vets are going to be confident
about discussing the implications of
BCS to their farmer clients. It can only
serve to make life easier for vet and
farmer.”

Early identification of metabolic
diseases such as ketosis and sub-acute
ruminal acidosis could be a way
forward in managing the incidence of
post-calving problems, lameness and
mastitis.

Using BCS as standard and having
demonstrable results encourages other
farmer clients to see the benefits of
veterinary intervention and engage
more with herd health management
programmes.

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