A recent issue of the Journal of Dairy Science covered advances in the dairy industry over the past 25 years. I found it interesting, since the 25-year timeline roughly corresponds to my professional career. The articles also caused me to evaluate what I believe to be significant successes and failures in the area of veterinary medicine and health.

Let’s start with the successes. These are things I hope all of you are doing. If not, talk to your veterinarian about how you can apply them to your dairy.

Vaccines. When I started practice, coliform mastitis was a fairly common occurrence. Now it is rare, thanks to the use of J-5 vaccination programs that utilize subunit technology to produce an effective vaccine against the devastating effects of E coli and related mastitis.

Siderophore receptor protein technology (SRP) in vaccines for Salmonella sp. diseases is another important breakthrough on the vaccine front. SRP technology promises to produce similarly dramatic results, as J-5 did with coliform mastitis. In addition, the vaccines we use for common viral and bacterial diseases are safer and more efficacious than ever before.

Milk fever prevention. The prevailing hypothesis on the cause of milk fever 25 years ago was that susceptible cows received too much calcium during the dry period. This, in turn, led to a sluggish response of the calcium-mobilizing system at calving. Although the sluggishness part of the hypothesis is correct, attempts to prevent milk fever by lowering dietary calcium content, unless it was so severely lowered as to make the cows deficient, proved to be unrewarding. The acid-base balance of the diet (DCAD) was much more significant at influencing the calcium-mobilizing system. Manipulating the dry cow diet’s sulfate, chloride, sodium, and potassium content allows us to more effectively prevent milk fever and its associated complications.

Housing. Free-stall housing facilities built at the beginning of my career were dungeons — dark, cramped, crowded, and poorly ventilated. Attention to the true needs of the cow has resulted in today’s free-stall barns being much more comfortable and better for the animal. Research linking housing and cow health and productivity is still in its infancy.

Holistic approach. I completed an advanced degree in dairy nutrition after graduating from veterinary school. This was rare at the time. Animal scientists and veterinarians tended to be segregated from each other in their research and their approach to problems and questions. Now, the interactions between nutrition, health, production, housing, environment, the immune system, genetics and economics are all areas of active research and potential advances. Veterinarians routinely work with animal scientists, involving themselves in all areas of dairy management and dairy science.

During the past 25 years, the industry also has seen a few failures. The two I have listed below not only hinder the animals’ productivity, but they also have the potential to become huge consumer concerns and thus deserve your immediate attention.

Lameness. Numerous surveys show that the incidence of lameness is increasing. Confining cows on concrete, along with feeding practices that can trigger acidosis, contribute to foot problems. However, lameness from laminitis is highly preventable if we try.

Hairy heel wart infection (digital dermatitis) has gone from an unrecognized, undescribed rarity to a cause of lameness in all but a handful of herds. The spread of this contagious disease indicates a failure of the animal health and dairy industry. Lameness — no matter what the cause — is a significant animal-welfare issue.

Calf mortality. Although the number of calves that die after 24 hours of life may not have changed much in the last 25 years, the number of stillbirths appears to be increasing. This is likely a multi-faceted problem, but I suspect one of the problems is genetic selection. Beef breeds have done an excellent job of selecting for low birth weight, calving ease and livability, coupled with rapid growth. The dairy breeds need to start selecting for similar traits — not just low birth weight.

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