Dairy producers and consultants sometimes become so focused on obtaining management goals that they often lose sight of the cost to achieve them.

Most dairy farms try to minimize involuntary culling, reduce death loss, improve udder health, and enhance reproductive efficiency. While we know that a culling rate below 30 percent, a calving interval less than 13 months and a somatic cell count of less than 150,000 are goals worthy of obtaining, the cost to obtain these may not always be economical.

Producers must evaluate records to evaluate the true cost of their herd health programs.

Audit man-hours
The labor force required to manage the herd health program for your farm is dependent on your facilities, management strategy, herd size, and capabilities of your staff. I recently audited the man-hours for several clients and found vast differences in the labor cost associated with implementing similar herd health programs.

For example, a 1,500-cow dairy with a natural service breeding program uses 5,840 man-hours per year implementing its herd health program, while another dairy of similar size using AI and synchronized breeding consumes more than 30,000 man-hours. The financial gains from the genetics in the more advanced herd were lost in the extraordinary number of man-hours needed to run the herd health program.

The amount of man-hours used during "herd health check day" (when your veterinarian visits) can vary considerably also. My review found a large dairy's herd health program using 800 veterinary hours annually - at a price of $72,000 - plus the herdsmen's time which included 800 hours, or $9,600. Another dairy of similar size required half the man hours to perform veterinary services.

Once you audit your labor, make any needed adjustments to the labor structure or facilities to reduce man-hours. Too often, changes in facilities will increase the amount of time required or the number of employees needed to do the palpations during herd checks. Look for opportunities in grouping strategies and facility enhancement that will minimize labor hours to complete a task. Establish protocols that are easy to perform rather than complicated programs that are difficult to implement.

Measure the cost
In many cases, the only way dairy producers gauge their herd-health cost is by looking at the veterinarian's monthly bill.

I prefer to separate the veterinarian's service charge from medicine or supplies to get a more accurate cost picture. It may seem time consuming to segregate these expenses, but the effort often yields a truer picture of what the various health protocols really cost.

Categorize pharmaceutical expenses to reflect their use on the farm. I break these expenses into the following three categories:

  • Therapeutic. Includes antibiotics, electrolytes, fluids, and mastitis tubes.
  • Reproductive. Includes hormones and prostaglandins used in breeding programs.
  • Preventative. Includes vaccines, wormers, and dry-cow tubes.

Classifying and categorizing medications allows for economic analysis. Once the costs are segregated, establish goals for each of the categories and institute controls when expenses exceed budgeted levels.

An example
The OvSynch protocol for synchronizing heat cycles in cows is a good example of why cost analysis is needed.

The program cost will run about $10 to $20 per cow for pharmaceuticals, plus the cost of semen and labor. However, it doesn't guarantee pregnancy if underlying nutritional deficiencies, infertility problems or cow comfort issues are causing infertility.

So, what does it cost to maintain your herd health program? Manpower, facilities, and veterinary cost all affect the cost of the programs. Achieving high performance at any cost is not good business. Audit your dairy and discover the actual cost of your herd health program.

Paul Johnson is a veterinarian and consultant in Enterprise, Ala.