No cow left behind

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Readers of this column know that I sometimes relate my experiences as a school board member to my experiences as a dairy veterinarian.

Look at the parallels that exist between dairy practice and the new federal legislation known as “No Child Left Behind.”  As part of the “No Child Left Behind” legislation, student performance is measured and schools are evaluated based on those measurements. One key difference between earlier “accountability” measures and this legislation is that it is no longer enough to measure school quality by average performance. Each student subgroup must achieve set standards. That way, higher-achieving students cannot mask a lower-performing group.

Furthermore, the legislation calls for early intervention on behalf of at-risk students.

Move beyond averages

One of the changes in dairy practice that has occurred in my lifetime — as herd size has increased — is less emphasis on individual cow performance and more attention on the overall performance of the herd. To do that, we measure in averages.

Because of changes in housing, feeding, and handling systems, observation of individual cow attitude, appetite, and behavior has become more difficult. The result: sick cows often become severely ill before they get noticed, and treatments are often less effective because they are delayed.

As it has become more difficult to monitor individual cow performance, we have learned to rely on herd averages to measure important criteria, such as milk production, feed intake, reproductive performance or cull rate.

However, through experience, trial-and-error, and technological advances in record-keeping, we can change this. We can organize our farms in a way that improves the chances we will “Leave No Cow Behind.”  Small dairies can accomplish this the way the good ones always have — good records (paper or computer) and close attention to individual cows. Large dairies, however, will need the following systems in place to achieve this goal:

- A good, transition cow monitoring and treatment plan. Almost all of the significant, adverse health events that require medical intervention occur near calving. In addition to a good transition-cow-nutrition-program, early detection of health problems is critical for maximizing success and minimizing loss. Develop a protocol to observe and examine every fresh cow during the first 10 to 14 days of her lactation. Establish a written plan for treatments should abnormal findings be observed. Early diagnosis and treatment of problems will improve the performance of most of these individuals, and, ultimately, the herd.

- A good computerized record-keeping system that allows data to be broken down into smaller subgroups. You need more than just “average” performance. As is the case in schools, some of the high-achieving cows on your dairy can mask the performance of underachieving peers. It would be good, for example, to compare the performance of two-year-olds versus older cows, or cows calving in summer versus those calving in winter. Examination of a “scatter plot” of data points — where each point represents an individual cow — can provide visual clues as to whether the average really represents the overall herd, or if it is being artificially affected by some of the subgroups.  The overall ketosis rate in the herd may be acceptable, but if one looks at each lactation subgroup, it may become apparent that heifers have an unusually high incidence rate. That, in turn, can provide clues to solving the problem.

These two approaches — identification of problem areas and early intervention — mimic aspects of the federal education legislation known as “No Child Left Behind.”

Make sure that “no cow is left behind.” Talk to your veterinarian about what changes you can make in order to move beyond averages to judge herd performance. Then, when milk prices recover, your cows will be in better shape to take advantage of the upswing.

Brian Gerloff  is a veterinarian and operates Seneca Bovine Service in Marengo, Ill.



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