Maintain herd health while you weather the storm

By I. Noa Roman-Muniz, DVM, MS

Extension Dairy Specialist

Colorado State University


FORT COLLINS, Colo. – In difficult economic times, we all switch to survival mode. On a dairy farm, survival mode means maintaining milk production while reducing costs as much as possible. 

While all areas of the operation should be assessed for the opportunity to reduce costs, today I would like to offer some suggestions about options for making herd health programs more cost efficient. 


Early identification of sick cows 

When discussing health issues on any dairy farm, early identification of sick cows is one of my main discussion points. Everyone on the dairy should be instructed on how to identify signs of early disease. 

When ill animals are identified promptly, the appropriate treatment can be administered earlier in the course of disease and the animal has a better chance of recovering. This does not only improve our chances of retaining that cow in the herd as a productive animal, but reduces the costs of lost milk production, extended therapies, and more invasive procedures in the case of certain diseases. 

This principle applies to both adult animals and calves being raised on the farm. For example, if a calf with mild dehydration is identified today, you might be able to treat her with oral electrolytes and keep her hydrated at a relative low cost. 

If instead of identifying the problem and starting the treatment today, you waited until tomorrow, you might need to administer fluids intravenously and you might even need the intervention of the herd veterinarian to rehydrate the calf and keep her hydrated during the course of the disease.  


Treatment vs. culling vs. euthanasia

Besides following established protocols for the treatment of commonly occurring diseases, it is also vital to establish a decision-making process to ensure that all animals are properly evaluated before medications are administered. 

When an illness is identified, we must consider the costs of treatment, and the probability of that cow improving as a result of treatment. In some instances, we should consider selling or culling the cow. 

The dairy management team should be able to make good culling decisions and know the ideal time to cull those animals at risk of developing more serious diseases. It is critical to understand that only cows that are healthy and strong enough can be transported to the sale barn or slaughter plant. 

Selling cows that fail to get pregnant due to reproductive issues is critical. We must also consider euthanasia as a humane option to end the suffering of ill and non-ambulatory cattle. This is both an economical and an animal well-being issue. 

Workers and management should have the needed tools to assess a cow’s condition and decide if the cow should be treated or euthanized. 

Your herd veterinarian should be an integral part of the process of constructing protocols for the identification and management of sick cows.


Work with your veterinarian

Besides helping with the design of protocols for disease identification, treatment and other management decisions specific to ill animals, your herd veterinarian is a great resource when it comes to strategies for preventive health on the dairy.

Work with your veterinarian to revise vaccination protocols for calves and adult cattle.  When considering a vaccination program, one must assess the risk of disease in the herd, the cost of the disease, and the cost and effectiveness of the vaccine. 

While some herds may not be adequately protected against common or devastating diseases, some other herds may be over vaccinated and redundant vaccines are adding costs to the health program without any additional benefits to the herd health.

You may also want to discuss with your herd veterinarian options for prioritizing health services. What veterinary services should continue as scheduled because of their importance to maintaining herd health?  Which ones could be pushed back because they are not as critical?


Drug inventory 

 In these difficult economic times, we should ask ourselves how differences in inventory could affect cash flow. Keeping a short-term inventory for antimicrobials, hormones, vaccines and other commonly used drugs on the dairy farm might provide cash flow advantages. 

Also, pay attention to the storage room and make sure that all drugs are protected against extreme temperatures. Pay attention to expiration dates and make sure that everyone involved in herd health programs is aware of proper drug handling and administration protocols. 

Using the right syringe and needle and administering the drug correctly is as important as using good quality drugs. If people administering drugs are not aware of the consequences of using the wrong needle or syringe, or giving the wrong drug at the wrong time, we are not only jeopardizing animal health, but are wasting drugs and increasing the costs of vaccinations, sick cow treatments and reproductive management programs.

The above are just examples of strategies for reducing herd health costs on dairy operations during these harsh economic times. By no means is this list complete, and I ask you to take into account the specifics of your operation and choose your strategies accordingly. Consider the following:

•You might need to consider how you can modify the feed ration without compromising animal health. 

•You might need to consider how labor activities can be modified to be more efficient without compromising worker safety and animal health. 

•You might need to evaluate with the reproductive consultants the costs and benefits associated with natural service and synchronization and artificial insemination programs.  

When it comes to animal health, I believe that prevention strategies will pay off as long as they are based on the specific needs of your dairy operation. Prevention can take place everywhere on the dairy. 

Colostrum management, biosecurity, vaccination programs, daily observation of cows, proper management of the feeding and reproductive programs, personnel training on calving and milking procedures are all part of a prevention program that will ensure the health and well-being of dairy animals and reduce illness-related costs.  

And I believe healthy cows will help us weather the storm.   



  To contact I. Noa Roman-Muniz, DVM,  e-mail or call her at 970-491-6022.

  To contact William Wailes, head, Animal Sciences, Colorado State University, e-mail or call him at 970-491-5390.