When you look at the balance sheet for any business, every item is classified either as an asset, a liability or owner's equity. As a veterinarian, it bugs me just a bit that we are listed as liabilities.

Yes, vets are an expense, just like feed or fence, but with due respect to vet and cowboy poet Baxter Black, I don't like being “out there” as a liability. I think most vets want to be an asset, and on many farms or ranches, the herd-health vet actually is a true asset to the business.

As a youngster growing up on our family swine and beef farm, it was our vet who made such revolutionary recommendations as not calving all year around (we did so with our pigs and that worked fine), and castrating calves soon after birth instead of at weaning. As our herd improved, due in part to his recommendations, we wanted more from him. What about artificial insemination? Could we feed something other than hay in the winter? What breeds best fit our farm goals? What about weighing calves at weaning (a bit cutting edge in the early 1970s)?

Prevention is key

Since the focus of this issue of BEEF is calf health, let's look at a typical health concern — neonatal diarrhea — and see how your herd-health vet can assist in control and, more importantly, prevention of disease.

The long-term goal with respect to calf diarrhea should be zero incidence. Every vet has herds that year after year have no calves with scours. When we as vets see management techniques that result in high health status of calves, we try to apply this information on farms experiencing disease outbreaks.

It's almost never a “cookie cutter” approach where one size fits all, but working with the current facilities and some environmental control, we can almost always give some practical recommendations that will yield positive results. Of course, if the owner's answer is always, “we can't do that” or “we've always done it this way,” we then refer to Albert Einstein's quote that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Instead of focusing on “the next new treatment” for scours, it's in everyone's best interest to focus on prevention. Ask your herd-health vet what he or she thinks are the “weak links” in your system contributing to the health problem. In nearly every situation, we see a number of what may seem like minor problems that add up to a bigger problem.

In diagnosing a herd problem, I like to list the areas that impact the health and profitability of a cowherd. This list includes: health, fertility, nutrition, records, marketing, environment and genetics. I write each of these down on paper and search my mind for any potential contributing factors to the herd problem.

Of course, there's always some overlap and something may show up in two areas. That's not a problem. Some of questions we may ask are:

  • Health — Are cows properly vaccinated and dewormed prior to calving?
  • Fertility — Are heifers bred before cows so that calves from heifers can be watched more closely for disease issues?
  • Nutrition — Do cows calve in a moderate (5.5-6.0) Body Condition Score (BCS), and heifers calve in good (6.5-7.0) BCS, so that colostrum quality and quantity are optimum?
  • Records — Are calves with scours out of mostly heifers? Or are they calves born late in the calving season or from “repeat offender” cows?
  • Marketing — Are calves with scours out of home-raised or purchased cows/heifers?
  • Environment — Are heifers wintered and calved separately from cows (a must)? Is a barn used for calving (which increases disease incidence)? Is calving time consistent with environmental conditions? Note: In most all health surveys, environment is at the top of the “weak link” list for calf health.
  • Genetics — Do calves show excellent vigor at birth and get up and nurse within 30-60 minutes of birth? Do calves have optimum hybrid vigor for improved health?

Strengths and weaknesses

Every herd has strengths and weaknesses, but if health is one weakness, it's nearly impossible to have any real strengths. Think of all the problems that may occur subsequently if calves get sick at a very young age — increased death loss, lower weaning weights and rates, increased sickness and decreased growth in the feedlot, less replacement heifers for the herd, etc. Health is surely a huge impact on the total herd.

This would be a great time for you to sit down with your herd-health vet and really scrutinize your herd as to its strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps health is excellent but fertility is a concern.

Divide your herd into the areas listed on page 40. Write each of these on paper and decide which areas are your top two strengths. Perhaps it would help to ask others what they would say was excellent about your herd.

Once you've settled on your top two strengths, ask yourself, “How did these two items become strengths? Did I have assistance developing these strengths or is this truly my area of expertise?”

Next, write down your top two weaknesses and ask yourself, “What can I do to improve these weaknesses? Who would be a resource to assist me?” It may be your Extension beef specialist, your nutritionist or your herd-health vet.

Does working closely with your vet and others pay off? According to BEEF's Vet Survey (see “Vets Weigh In On Calf Health,” page 6) it pays off big. The vets who reported that calf health has improved or stayed constant in their client's herds have likely attained a relationship with those ranchers that makes them a part of the management team. When that happens, good things result.

The goal is to have a team of experts to help you to make your herd better. Get on a total herd-health program with your vet, and then challenge him or her to help you tackle the weak links that impact your herd. Get them on the asset side of the ledger where they belong.

W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical associate professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.

How vets became assets

Here are some examples of unique ways that vets are becoming assets to their clients' herds:

  • A client has his herd-health vet Body Condition Score (BCS) his cows at pregnancy check in early September, and again in early December to revaluate the cows. Each group is given a BCS; appropriate nutrition is then provided to each group so that cows calve in proper BCS. The cost for the additional BCS evaluation is minimal and herd fertility has improved since adding this service.

  • Vets host a calving clinic each year at their clinic to refresh clients on when to call for assistance (“progress every hour”), what supplies they should have on hand, and provide a review of techniques on how to assist in delivery.

  • Clinics have helped clients organize their calves — preconditioned under a uniform health program — into load lots in order to command higher prices at sale time.

  • Many vets assist cow-calf owners in formulating rations utilizing corn and soybean co-products to stretch winter feed resources and save significant money on winter feeding of cows.

  • One vet organized some of his very best herds to sell bred replacement females to other producers. After pregnancy check, the secretary at the clinic records all data in a spreadsheet and provides this to producers looking for heifers. The spreadsheet gets updated throughout the fall and winter as heifers are sold and others are added to the “for sale” list.