When looking for the solution to a problem, all  too often a decision gets made without the benefit of long-term vision. Yes, the change implemented does address the immediate problem, but, unfortunately, it often leads to other problems later on.

Take, for example, a recent conversation with a dairy client. He was telling us about changes in the heifer-growing program. Heifers used to return from the heifer grower’s looking like feedlot animals with heavy body condition, short frames, poor hair coats and hardship grooves on the hooves. Now those heifers return with large frames, good body condition and hair coats, and healthy hooves. 

However, the producer now has a new problem. These good-looking springers have abnormal feeding behavior and often develop acidosis. Because they were limit-fed a ration with a low volume of by-product ingredients, they are not acclimated to forage consumption or ad-libitum intake. The rumen organisms are not ready for forage utilization, and rumen capacity has been restricted because the animals were trained to slug feed. The solution is to alter the ration and feed-bunk management in the bred heifers in order to help prepare them for lactation.

While the original solution implemented did improve the body condition and appearance of returning heifers, it created more problems for the animals to overcome later in life.

The flip side

Now, let’s look at what can happen when you use long-term vision.

We have another client herd where the majority of aged cows have never had a somatic cell count above 100,000 cells/ml. That’s because these cows were not exposed to mastitis pathogens in milk as calves. They were not infected by suckling calves or biting flies as developing heifers. And, on the positive side, they were exposed to good teat disinfection and consistent milk-out in the first lactation and received dry-cow antibiotics or teat sealants during all non-lactating periods.

When these animals are challenged by wet conditions, heat stress and ration changes, they are less likely to develop a high somatic cell count indicative a new or recurrent mammary infection. And, they present less risk of spreading infection to herd mates or the next generation of animals.

If we were thinking about the long-term future of the herd, would we ever feed waste milk to calves that contain disease-causing pathogens in mature cows? I think not.

Understand the consequences

Advances in human medicine have taught us a lot. We know that we can create or prevent disease. We can influence the metabolic and hormonal status of a person, and that, in turn, can affect that person’s ability to reproduce and handle stress later in life. The cumulative effects of nutrition and other exposures (from even before birth) can all affect one later in life. And new research shows that even the grandmother’s nutritional status during pregnancy influences the metabolic status of her grandchildren.

The same is true in our herds.

Just look at pregnant cows. Heavy body condition of the dam during pregnancy exposes the fetus to higher levels of estrogen and alters the cyclicity of the heifer calf when she reaches puberty. In addition, cortisol exposure — due to maternal stress — influences the set point for stress response in offspring for life.

Our goal should always be to continuously move in a forward direction within an animal’s life, and from generation to generation. Everything we do today can and does have future consequences. Be sure to consider those consequences when weighing a change in your dairy.

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