As the dairy industry evolves, so must dairy practitioners

As the dairy industry evolves, so must dairy practitioners

Willingness to change will ensuredairy practitioner livelihood
Feb 01, 2004

Charles E. Gardner
Last week I attended a social event in the area where I first practiced. Returning home, I drove along a 10-mile stretch of route 611, between Martin's Creek and Mt. Bethel, Penn. As I did so, nostalgia ran strong, as I recalled names like Budd Ott, Floyd Ott, Mike Palmer, Charlie Diehl and many others. These were all active dairy farms in the 1970s, when milk prices were strong and dairy practice relatively simple.

As a young dairy veterinarian, I could spend all day doing farm calls in that area, drive fewer than 30 miles, and not be on a farm with more than 80 cows.

Most of the farms I called on then are no longer active, and the barns where I once labored sit empty or are gone altogether. The trend to larger, more efficient farms continues its relentless march. This trend represents both a threat and an opportunity to dairy practitioners. Whether it is the former or the latter depends mainly on our willingness to change.

Winds of change All dairy farms have needs which veterinarians are uniquely suited to meet. In some cases our training and experience make it easy for us to meet those needs. In other cases, we must add to our existing knowledge, but we are still the best candidates. The key to remaining involved with today's dairy client is to recognize his or her unmet needs, and do what is needed to meet them. In most cases, this requires changing from "hands-on" mode to teaching, evaluating, reporting and communicating.

While attending that social event pulled my mind back to the '70s, I spent most of last week working on the farms that are active today. Here are some real life highlights from three of them.

Herd 1This herd belongs to a young couple in their early 30s. They recently moved from a 40-cow tie stall barn to a 100-cow tie stall barn. This unit was built three years ago, and provides excellent cow comfort and is relatively labor efficient.

It allows this couple to manage their herd with no hired labor. They will be able to attain high production, and they will be economically sound. This type of operation will exist for a long time in southeastern PA. While relatively small, they still represent a changing market in terms of veterinary services.

So, while this is a smaller herd in today's world, it is one that will exist for a long time, and one that has learned to perform traditional veterinary service internally.

From my relationship as farm nutritionist with this couple, I know that they are very interested in outside input on herd management. At this time, no private veterinarian is offering that type of service to them. So, the net result is that our profession is losing them, as they pass private practitioners by in terms of having their needs met.

Herd 2This herd is a former client of mine, whom I have often used as an example of smaller herds remaining efficient. In 1989, they milked 44 cows and shipped 22,000 pounds of milk per cow, using only family labor. In 1999, they milked 72 cows, and shipped 28,000 pounds of milk per cow, still using the same family work force. A little math shows us they doubled the amount of milk they shipped from the same work force. That is a great example of smaller herds staying efficient. While they were my client, we made records review and discussion a part of every herd visit.

Today, this herd has expanded to 300 cows, as the now grown children wish to remain in the operation and draw enough income to support their own families. When visiting this farm, I learned that they had a training session scheduled with their veterinarian, where he would be teaching protocols for treating clinical mastitis. I could tell from the conversation that they depended heavily on this doctor to work with them on management, even as they used him less and less to do routine procedures. Clearly, this practitioner has learned how to meet the needs of a farm that will be part of the dairy industry for a long time.

Herd 3This herd milks 550 cows. I called on them one morning with a member of my sales staff. Our goal was to sell him feed commodities and minerals. As we talked, the owner was making copies of farm records to use in his team management meeting that was scheduled for later in the day. He made it clear to us that a key member of his management team was his veterinarian, and that his veterinarian did his ration balancing.

We would have an opportunity to sell ration ingredients if we could competitively bid to meet the guidelines his doctor prescribed.

While this farm was much larger than the first one I mentioned, they still used their veterinarian to do reproductive exams and to perform surgery. This doctor was successfully serving them in both traditional and production medicine roles. In other words, he was meeting their needs on several fronts, and in doing so ensured himself a role on the farm and revenue from the farm.

No two herds are alike, and there is no one set of veterinary services that will meet the needs of all dairy producers. The challenge and opportunity that faces every practitioner is to identify each clients needs, and then to be proactive in meeting those needs. There is plenty of opportunity to survive and grow if we take that approach.