On a dairy farm, only the cows produce income. Everything and everyone else – veterinarian included – is an expense to the bottom-line profit margin. How a veterinarian works with a dairy is based on whatever return on investment the dairy owner thinks he or she is receiving from the use of that veterinary practice.

This is a huge change from the veterinarian’s traditional role. In the past, veterinarians would wait for daily sick calls concerning the health of individual animals on a per-farm basis. Calls were for a cow or two per stop: Diagnosis made, therapy administered, follow-up care recommended, medicine dispensed, then on to the next farm down the road.

Most dairy veterinarians today are species-specific to dairy cattle. Some practices offer complete veterinary care: From the everyday sick cow or calf (as in the past) to more specialized services in record analysis, reproduction management, milking machine performance, facility design, employee training, herd health consultation and product sales. Practices can extend their services by enlisting outside resources as needed to solve their dairy’s problems.

Shifting labor
Today’s larger herd sizes allow dairy owners to employ skilled personnel who handle day-to-day cow treatments and care. These skilled employees can make observations of cow behavior and animal health and perform therapy protocols developed by the herd’s veterinarian.

It is this area of veterinary involvement that has changed the most in the life of a dairy veterinarian. Routine animal care – vaccinations, obstetrical procedures, foot trimming, dehorning, castrations and so on – has shifted from the veterinarian to employee technicians. Many successful producers delegate cow care completely to employees and occupy themselves with running the complexities of the dairy business. This shift in allocation of labor resources (employee labor versus veterinary time) opens up other areas on a dairy for the veterinarian.


Many producers see reproductive programs as the main reason to use a veterinarian. Palpating or using ultrasound to determine open cows, and then using the recommended protocol for rebreeding, is the justification owners use to have the veterinarian on the dairy. In addition to the repro work, the veterinarian observes the overall health of the herd, including body condition scores, manure consistency, lameness, general cow comfort, feedbunk management, cud chewing and rumen fill. The veterinarian also answers questions and has a conversation about what’s been happening since the last visit. The repro focus was the reason for the call; the value is more comprehensive to the herd.

But a reproductive program succeeds or fails because of the way in which the employees manage fresh cow care, heat detection and adherence to timing of protocols, administration of injections, breeding technique and cow handling. The veterinarian provides information on the results of what has been done up to the time of the examination. The responsibility of a dairy veterinarian does not end at the completion of that day’s repro check. The much larger payback to the dairy is what the veterinarian recommends for future programs that increase the chances of success, and the training of dairy workers in the proper use of those programs.

Herd health and profitability
Veterinarians have an opportunity to help their clients define what needs to be done and establish the procedures to get it done. This is the area where today’s dairy veterinarian can have an impact.

A veterinarian must first gain the confidence of a dairy by performing the necessary exam/diagnoses, routine work and emergencies proficiently. Tough obstetrical procedures, C-sections, DA volvulus surgeries need to be done successfully when required. These are typically single-animal cases that will not result in significant loss of milk in the bulk tank. But the veterinarian is judged on the outcome of these cases, and unless successful, will not be allowed to participate on the team with any degree of credibility.

A veterinarian can improve the bulk tank volume by detecting underperforming cows and correcting the situation that is causing this on a herd basis. Monitoring the data that is current and looking for changing negative trends can avert problems and help maintain milk yield for the herd.

In addition, a veterinarian should work closely with the dairy’s nutritionist. The nutritionist works with the dairy’s biggest line item expense – feed cost. The veterinarian’s primary responsibility is maximizing herd health to ensure nutrition has no impediments to producing milk efficiently. At the same time, the nutritional diet for all phases of cattle on the dairy need to promote rumen health and immune system support.

These examples indicate that veterinarians are now following more closely what is happening on a herd basis that can impact profitability. At the same time, the veterinarian realizes that every cow is important and still needs individual attention. This attention will be directed by the veterinarian through efforts of the owner/producer for those who want to be hands-on and have time to do that or through designated skilled employees.

Coaching the team
Jobs traditionally done by veterinarians on small dairy farms (reactive manipulation-based services) are not being done by veterinarians in any of the medium-to-large dairies. Veterinarians have changed their mind-set of what service to the dairy industry means. Veterinarians, as part of the dairy team on each farm, work in areas of monitoring performance, bringing innovations through knowledge transfer and training employees through meetings.

To ensure satisfactory performance and animal welfare, veterinarians create protocols and flow charts that tell employees how the job they are performing should be done. The vet’s role is now one of “coach” within the concept of teamwork. The coach does not own the team or the cows and does not perform daily chores. But he or she is hired for professional abilities to organize the team into an efficient unit that gets the job done of producing milk profitably. It’s a good fit. Veterinarians are trained to understand the biology of animals and epidemiology of disease to maintain optimal herd health. They’re logical problem solvers who can coordinate all the team players to be responsive and meet the goals of the business plan the owner has developed.

Safety on the dairy and beyond
Veterinarians are also an instrumental component of the nation’s public health system through early detection, prevention and control of infectious disease, which ensures the safety and security of the dairy food supply. Situations that pose a threat to animal health and welfare can affect producer profits, consumer confidence and international trade in our global economy. This includes dairy beef from marketed dairy cows, which represents 7 percent of the total beef production in the U.S.

Avoidance of drug residues and proper administration procedures is an area that veterinarians take very seriously. Some veterinarians are writing prescriptions for drugs used on dairies now instead of dispensing OTC and prescription drugs through their practice. To do this, a VCPR (veterinary-client-patient relationship) must exist and be maintained. The veterinarian needs to have knowledge of the dynamics of that dairy and must be available to follow up as necessary. Labels for prescription drugs have to be properly filled out so the user understands dosage, administration, cautionary statements and withholding time for marketing milk or meat. Written records must be maintained of a cow’s ID, diagnosis, treatment and withholding times.

Full-service provider
The future of a dairy veterinarian is that of a full-service, local practitioner: One who is capable of providing accurate diagnostics through hands-on examination and routine or emergency services. One who can fill the role of coach for the dairy if requested by the owner. The local veterinarian knows the region and is aware of current conditions that directly impact the dairy. A local veterinarian has intimate knowledge of the dairy from being there and performing requested tasks. This is the foundation for constructing a structure that enables veterinarians to expand into areas that have not been considered traditional but can offer enormous benefit. PD

Dr. Robert Ovrebo is a staff veterinarian at the Form-A-Feed and TechMix companies, headquartered in Stewart, Minnesota.

Robert G. Ovrebo
Veterinarian with
Form-A-Feed and TechMix