Lab pregnancy testing: Opportunity or threat?
New technology to identify open cows circumvents the need for veterinarians to do the work. But that doesn't necessarily erase DVMs from the picture.
Herd health programs were the new frontier in dairy practice, circa 1960s. Artificial insemination placed the burden of getting cows bred on the manager instead of the herd bull. Veterinarians could help by identifying open cows so the attention could be focused on them. The advent of prostaglandin further increased the importance of knowing, with high accuracy, the cows that could be injected to induce estrus.
Progressive practitioners of that era educated their clients regarding the value of reproductive palpations, and herd health visits became the foundation from which most dairy practices operated. The importance of identifying open cows got us onto the farm, and from that point we had the opportunity to perform a wide range of additional services. In my own practice I used the reproductive visit as a launching point to do records review and herd management consulting.Dairy farmers now have another means to identify open cows –– a blood pregnancy test that that can be used on cows that are at least 90 days in milk and 30 days post insemination. It's almost 100-percent accurate. Producers can breed cows at 60 days post fresh and 30 days later send a blood sample. Results are relayed one day after the laboratory receives them. This means the herd manager can know the status of the cow 32 days after breeding, which is the ideal time to give gonadotropin releasing factor to begin synchronizing it for re-insemination. Costs are little more than $2.
Pros and cons
Which means of identifying open cows is best for the producer, and how should dairy practitioners react to this new technology? The answer depends on the producer and the veterinarian. On larger farms, the veterinarian who can accurately identify non-pregnant cows at 32 days post breeding will probably be more cost effective than the blood test. The cow already is restrained for palpation and can be injected immediately. The producer does not have to devote time to bleeding cows, mailing samples, receiving results, finding the open cows and restraining them again for injection.
We must keep in mind that in order for us to palpate cows at 32 days, we must be on the farm. That means a call charge, so if only a few cows are involved, the cost per cow is dramatically higher than if a large number are examined. On smaller farms, using the blood test on a small number of cows will be significantly less than paying a stop charge plus the palpation fee.
Challenges for DVMs
Not all practitioners can accurately determine open cows at 32 days, and at later stages, the best time of the reproductive cycle to re-synchronize is missed. The use of ultrasound allows accurate determination of pregnancy but adds cost. In general, I suspect larger herds that do weekly pregnancy exams will continue to rely on palpations or ultrasound. These same herds might use on-farm staff to perform the procedures.
The blood pregnancy test is one more form of technology that decreases the producer's dependence on veterinarians. This continues a long-standing trend that began with lay sales of animal health products many years ago. Larger herds have typically been better positioned to replace veterinarians with lay staff, but the new blood pregnancy test procedure might be more useful to smaller herds. In any case, the dairy practitioner continues to face challenges as he or she seeks to remain a valuable resource to clients.
How to respond
I believe the best response is to serve the best interests of your producers. If using blood testing to identify open cows will help your clients, then you should be the one who tells them about it. Keep yourself in the loop. Tell them the pros and cons, and let them make the decision.
Sooner or later, some of your clients are going to stop using you for pregnancy exams. What will you do to fill that void? In my opinion, there is a world of opportunity for private practitioners to be more proactive in herd management consulting. This is often referred to as production medicine.
Your first challenge with those producers who stop having you do repro exams is to convince them that a regularly scheduled herd visit is still important. However, instead of palpating cows, you will review herd records and discuss herd performance. You will be involved in the nutrition program. This does not mean you have to balance rations, but you will look at the rations, look at the feed in the bunk, evaluate manure, cud chewing, body condition, bunk space, etc.
You will help your client assess udder health, herd fertility, transition cows, calf health, heifer growth, ventilation, stall comfort and vaccination programs. You will make suggestions that improve performance or reduce costs and have a positive impact on the bottom line.
Will all of this be easy? No. The best way to begin is to work on your listening skills. Learn to find out what things are of concern to your clients. Then position yourself as the best source of solutions. Now, while you are still doing the palpations, start showing the additional value you can provide. Make it automatic that your visits continue if and when pregnancy palpations stop.
Dr. Gardner is the business development manager for Agway Feed & Nutrition in eastern Pennsylvania. He also consults with dairy practitioners regarding practice management.