Caring for the cows is a wise investment

John Oncken
Regular herd health checks help to find problems before it impacts the herd.

How many of us have a doctor come to our home to check on our family health every week? Every two weeks? Every month?

Probably not a one, unless there is a specific illness that must be monitored and we can’t make it to a clinic or hospital.

Visits are often

Yet many of Wisconsin’s top dairy herds are visited by a veterinarian (who is indeed a well-trained and skilled doctor) on a regular weekly, biweekly or monthly schedule.

These herd check visits usually center on the pregnancy status of the milking cows in the herd. Dairy cows are food animals, not pets, and ideally have a calf yearly after which they milk about 300 days, are dry for two-three months and then repeat the cycle. Cows that do not have a calf yearly normally do not stay in the herd very long.

Keeping the cows healthy

Thus, the regular veterinarian visits to ensure the calving cycle continues. During such an inspection, the veterinarian also closely observes the entire physical condition of the animal. The regular visits also offer the herd owner or supervisor an opportunity to bring any noticeable signs of physical ailments to the veterinarian’s attention for observation and/or treatment.

The entire process takes time and can be costly to the dairy producer who does it for one reason: To make sure the cows are healthy.

This explains why dairy producers and the entire dairy industry become upset when they see TV shows and read articles about how farmers are cruel to their animals.

A newborn calf stays warm under a heat lamp, helping her off to a fast start.

Sometimes photos without an explanation are a distortion and present the wrong story. For instance:

  • A recent TV video of a calf being dehorned was interpreted as cruelty. What wasn’t said was that the calf had probably been sedated and a local anesthetic (similar to what humans receive during a tooth filling) was applied before the electrical dehorner was used. To the unfamiliar or unknowing this might appear as inhuman treatment of the animal.
  • Pictures of a V-shaped alley scraper in a free-stall dairy barn can show a mass of manure and water, thus unsanitary conditions. Photos of the alley over which the scraper has passed will show a slick, shiny, clean-as-a-whistle barn. The truth is that alley scrapers are constantly moving and cleaning the area where the cows walk and stand.

Some time ago I had the opportunity to ride with a veterinarian on his farm calls visiting two dairies. The first stop was at a farm, just east of Cross Plains, for the every-other-week herd check of the 70-cow dairy herd.

As we parked near the small, traditional little red barn, my host said, “You’ll be surprised when you see the inside of the barn.” How true. The barn was small and outfitted with 27 wooden stanchions. Equipment that was outdated years ago when metal stanchions came on the scene and more recently by tie stalls and milking parlors.

The owner quickly explained that they were only used for milking, the cows were actually housed outside in a free-stall barn.

Keeping notes

The owner's wife, with clipboard in hand, led us to the first of the half dozen or so cows to be viewed. Using a prepared form, she diligently kept notes on his comments, suggestions and any pharmaceuticals used.

After discussing each cow with the dairy couple, we went to a small calf shed where a young calf was lying in the clean straw. The owner pointed out that the calf needed to be dehorned and that it was good to do so when she was young, something that was easily done because the vet came every two weeks.

Calves require special feeding and care.

The vet explained that he had actually sedated the calf a bit earlier and had applied a local anesthetic to the horn area to make it a painless procedure. The calf, although awake, gave no indication of pain ‒ not a flinch during the few-second process of electrically removing the nubbin of a horn.

Without being dehorned, the calf would have grown with horns that could have seriously endangered other animals or her human caretakers.

The next stop was at a herd of about 100 cows. As we pulled into the driveway the vet said, “It will probably take a couple of hours.”

Most of the cows were locked in place for easier inspection (the only time they are confined), and we moved down the line discussing each animal with the owners.

Among the first 20 or so cows, the vet found one that had aborted early in her pregnancy, one that was going to have twins and should be closely watched over the course of her pregnancy, and some with a developing fetus.

Again, prior to leaving the farm, he reviewed the inspection report with the owners, highlighting the individual cow reports. All the information will be recorded at the clinic and a final copy sent to the dairy.

Why is a close watch and inspection of cows that have been bred important to dairy producers?

Healthy cows means a lot of milk.

"Breeding a cow does not ensure a calf,” the veterinarian said. “Sometimes Mother Nature steps in and says ‘no.’ Every month the cow delays calving is a financial loss to the dairy family, and the cow tends to gain weight, which is not good.”

Most dairy farmers do everything possible to take care of their animals, meaning the best nutrition, health care and comfort. Farmers who don’t take such care usually don’t last long as farmers. And sometimes the treatment may look cruel but it isn't. Believe me!

John F. Oncken can be reached at