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Change is never easy even in today’s evolving industry

Bruce Hoffman Published on 30 April 2013

I meet very few people that enjoy change and more that actually resist it. Not sure why that is, as in my years of being a veterinarian, I have had minimal impact on the changes that continue to impact the dairy industry.

The local and global economy, weather, consumer preference and pressure and a decreasing understanding of agriculture in society have all led to a changing veterinary practice.

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The key issue is not “Will it change?” – but “Am I going to anticipate the changes coming, adapt and continue to be a valuable part of my client’s operation?”

Many of the practices that veterinarians traditionally performed have diminished as the size of the dairy has increased along with the value of the cull cow. In many practices, veterinarians are generating the majority of their income from reproduction expertise, namely palpating cows.

The actual training and expertise was gained mainly from experience and “arming” large numbers of cows, complemented by what we learned in our veterinary education.

Gone are the days of selling products with large margins, C-sections and surgeries for displaced abomasums.

Questions about the industry’s need for more veterinarians, the percentage of female veterinarians or the difficulty of financing a veterinary education are current topics that will continue to have an impact on our profession.

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It is not uncommon for me to hear veterinarians say they just want to stay healthy and keep doing what they are doing long enough to retire. Depending on time to retire, I’m not sure that theory is realistic in any profession today.

In some ways, we have backed ourselves into a corner by the perception that we are the only profession capable of accurately diagnosing pregnancy. Some of us have used legal means to make sure non-veterinarians are not stealing our livelihood.

As we have stayed busy, and most days too busy arming cows, other services that our profession traditionally handled were turned over to other people.

With all that focus on pregnancy diagnosis, we did not think we would ever lose that business, and I want to remind you that we have not lost it … yet.

Only if we get defensive and see it as a threat and resist will it hurt us. Pregnancy diagnosis via blood and milk samples is here to stay. It is not 100 percent accurate and does not need to be in order to be a viable option for dairies.

We must realize that our “gold standard” palpation skills are not 100 percent either, but are a great benefit to assessing the reproductive status of the herd. So how can we, as veterinarians, utilize this new technology?

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First, realize that the ability to use a metabolic test to determine pregnancy is here to stay. There will be greater competition and use as the technology is perfected.

Second, look at the benefits to your clients and their animals from animal welfare to herd health and production.

Improved biosecurity – No carrying of organisms from one cow to another through a palpation sleeve. Diseases like BLV, BVD and salmonella are just a few that come to mind.

Lameness – This is still a major problem in the dairy industry. We can now get a diagnosis without stirring up the cows in a pen or sorting. How many times do we see cows slipping as we are trying to work through a pen, especially when we get to the end and try to catch loose cows?

Cow comfort – There is data that demonstrates a direct correlation between increasing a cow’s lying down time and increased milk production. When all things are going well, lockup time is short during herd check. But is that always consistent? What if we did not have to keep the entire pen from resting just to check a few?

Third, we must look at our own stress and identify if this technology can be a benefit to us. Look around at how many veterinarians who have been practicing for 15-plus years, palpating frequently, have had corrective surgery on a hand, arm or shoulder?

Palpation is not without risk to the veterinarian. If we can reduce the number of cows that have to be physically examined, should we not look to this technology that can extend our careers?

How do we incorporate new technologies, such as the milk pregnancy test, into our dairy reproduction program? Some areas that we have identified are:

Dry-off checks – This is the easiest group to get a sample from in the parlor on a scheduled basis. These can also be incorporated in a DHI check. Talk to your provider about the possibility of the lab working with you to get cows checked easily without any labor or hassle to your farm employees.

Pregnancy confirmation – Since many herds are checking cows at 30 to 35 days, we will see early embryonic death and loss of the pregnancy. It is common for those animals to be confirmed pregnant at 75-plus days.

This is another group that can be collected through DHI or scheduled on a regular basis as cows go through the parlor. Another advantage of this method is we do not have to find all the cows on the list; if we miss her, get a sample at the next milking.

Increased frequency of checks – This is an area that benefits the smaller herds. Many herds feel they do not have enough cows to check in order for a veterinarian to come out on a regular or frequent schedule.

With the ease of milk pregnancy tests, cows can be checked weekly and a scheduled monthly appointment can focus on problem animals.

Distant herds – The reality in several parts of the country is that a veterinarian may not be close to the dairy. This distance creates a challenge as to charging appropriately for services when you have to drive a long way for a few cows.

These are great opportunities to set up programs for herd checks on-site less frequently with milk pregnancy checks in between visits.

Practice and service expansion – Just like dairies have grown to maximize facilities and improve efficiency, so must veterinarians.

The problem lies in the fact that when we physically have to be present to palpate cows, it takes away time that we could be providing other services like cow health and milking barn services.

I have seen other professions expand their services because the local vet runs out of hours in the day performing routine reproduction work.

We now have the ability to provide the reproductive diagnosis we need to assist the farm in making good management decisions without having to be present. Is this an opportunity for your practice?

Evaluating the technology – As I said earlier, this technology does not replace the veterinarian. The test cannot currently age the fetus, determine sex or identify other abnormalities.

As the reproductive specialists, we should want our clients to know that we want the best for their herds and have evaluated all new technologies in the industry.

If nothing else, I hope I have gotten you to think how this new technology should be considered. Change is never easy, but it is always at our doorstep. PD

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Bruce Hoffman
President
Animal Profiling International Inc.

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