History tells us that the first health care providers of animals were farmers and blacksmiths. Like people, animals were treated mostly for infectious disease related to environmental hygiene, contagious disease outbreaks and injury. Then, in the late 1880s, the germ theory was the hot science news. Animal health and public health were closely intertwined, and the practice of veterinary medicine began. New powerful remedies were developed from our increased knowledge of anatomy, physiology, bacteriology and chemistry. 

Since that time, human medicine has evolved. Many infectious diseases have been eradicated. Today, the focus is on chronic degenerative disorders that have been brought on mainly by the lack of exercise and unhealthy diets.

What has happened on the animal side?

Current situation
Have we largely eradicated infectious disease and moved beyond the stage where antibiotics are viewed as silver bullets? Sadly, no.

We know far more about the organisms that cause disease and have remarkable new treatments, but we are still treating diseases associated with environmental hygiene (coliform and environmental streptococcal mastitis and foot rot) and contagious outbreaks (contagious mastitis, hairy heel warts).

About one-third of all dairy cattle develop mastitis each year, and the incidence of lameness exceeds that level in some herds. 

On the positive side, we have almost eliminated many infectious diseases that are of great concern to livestock and public health, including brucellosis and tuberculosis. Most new facilities are far less dangerous for acute injury but arguably may create more chronic injury, such as hock abrasions and sole hemorrhages, when compared to traditional loose housing or a managed pasture. In addition, we now have many modern afflictions associated with inappropriate diet -— acidosis, laminitis, and hemorrhagic bowel syndrome. Metabolic disorders are prevalent as well.

Productivity has increased tremendously. But at what price?

We can do better
We must continue to develop housing and feeding systems and population-medicine programs (testing and vaccines) that reduce infectious disease risk. We must provide an environment that minimizes the threat of manure-borne bacteria.

As for non-infectious disease, with more herds striving for 30,000-pound-herd averages, we cannot continue to increase the blanket use of hormones, drenches and footbaths and expect to have enough heifers left to replace our culls. We need to find diets that optimize productivity, without sacrificing health and fertility, for each new genetic level of production potential.

Why are we as an industry dabbling in cross-breeding and feeding more forage? Because we need to continuously develop new systems to keep up with milk production or use some elements of old ones that have worked for generations in order to have healthy cows making healthy milk.

For economic and ethical reasons, I’d like to see preventative medicine — and that includes nutrition — practiced at such a level that cull rates and death loss drop to half the current national average.  I believe we can get our housing and milking-hygiene practices in synch with the rapid rise in milk production. We should be able to achieve 30,000 pounds of milk, with a bulk tank somatic cell count of less than 200,000 cells/mL., without heavy culling for mastitis.

I’m certain that we will have new tools for treatment of disease, including potent immune and metabolic modulators. But, I think our success and continued public acceptance will depend on applying basic strategies from the late 1800s and learning how to feed and house a modern cow so she’s as healthy as grandma’s cow on the back 40.

Marquerita B. Cattell is a consulting veterinarian and organic dairy producer in Windsor, Colo.