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.
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.
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.
Sometimes photos without an explanation (or the wrong 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.
-- 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.
-- Then there were the photos of a calf being dehorned, which to the unfamiliar or unknowing might appear as inhuman treatment of the animal.
Recently I had the opportunity to ride with Dr. Barry Kleppe of Waunakee Veterinary Service on his farm calls and watch such a procedure.
Kleppe is a Hollandale farm boy who graduated from the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine in 1991 and is one of six bovine practitioners at the northern Dane County clinic.
The first stop was at the farm, just east of Cross Plains, of Vincent and Virginia Meinholz for their every-other-week herd check of their 70-cow dairy herd.
As we parked near the small, traditional little red barn, Kleppe said, “You’ll be surprised when you see the inside of the barn. I’ll bet it’s one of the few like it anywhere.”
How true. The barn was small and outfitted with 27 wooden stanchions -- equipment that was outdated 75 years ago when metal stanchions came on the scene and more recently by tie stalls.
Vincent Meinholz obviously took a lot of pride in having such old-fashioned stanchions but quickly explained that he and Virginia only used them for milking. The cows were actually housed outside in a free-stall barn.
“We like them because we can lock all the cows up at once,” he says. “They never break or fall apart. Besides, I made them myself in 1968 when we remodeled the 1890 barn.”
Virginia Meinholz, with clipboard in hand, led Kleppe to the first of the half dozen or so cows to be viewed. She diligently kept notes on a prepared form of his comments, suggestions and any pharmaceuticals used.
After discussing each cow with the dairy couple, Kleppe moved out of the barn to a small calf shed -- another of Vincent’s do-it-yourself projects -- where a calf just a few weeks old was lying in the clean straw.
Vincent 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.
Kleppe 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 to maturity with horns that could have seriously endangered other animals and her human caretakers.
The next stop was at the Ray Austin dairy, high on a hill near Black Earth. “This is a herd of about 100 cows,” Kleppe said as we pulled into the driveway. “It will probably take a couple of hours.”
Ray Austin and his milking assistant, his 86-year-old mother Otillia, were just finishing up, so Mike Austin, Ray’s brother and part-time farm worker, led Kleppe to a heifer yard and then to the milking herd free stall.
Most of the cows were locked in place for easier inspection (the only time they are confined), and Kleppe moved down the line discussing each animal with Mike Austin and Kaleb Varrelmann of Stoughton, the ABS Global representative who has been inseminating the herd for four years and stops at the farm daily.
Among the 20 or so cows Kleppe viewed, he found one that had aborted early in her pregnancy (about 40 days or so), one that was going to have twins and should be closely watched over the course of her pregnancy, and some with a developing fetus.
Along the way, the veterinarian treated a fresh cow for ketosis by giving her extra dextrose and stimulating her abomasum (one part of her four-part stomach) to get it back to normal.
Again, prior to leaving the farm, Kleppe reviewed the inspection report with Ray Austin, 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?
“Breeding a cow does not ensure a calf,” Kleppe says. “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.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at email@example.com.