The author is a partner and large animal veterinarian at Thumb Veterinary Services in Deckerville, Mich.

I distinctly remember my first veterinary truck. It was a brown, rusted out 3/4 ton 79 Chevy. Back then, it was common practice to "hand down" the oldest truck from the practice owner's fleet to the new grad for a bit of a probation period. The thinking was to allow the "newbie vet" an opportunity to work into an upgrade if he or she made it through the first years of practice.

Let's just say that the first snowy winter, piloting a rusted out, overpowered 350 with lightweight temporary drawers in the box, taught me to really appreciate an upgrade the following year. Now, 31 years later, I understand that philosophy. That old truck transported me around just fine, and it allowed my partners to budget my start-up year.

This applies to all aspects of ownership, whether it's a skid steer, tractor, barn and so forth. If maintenance and upkeep schedules have been well attended, and a good track history has developed, then the machine should have a longer productive life and will improve the farm's profitability.
Similarly, if we can lengthen a cow's productive life one more lactation, she, too, will improve the dairy's profitability. Many of you have experience with cows in your herds producing 200,000 pounds or more in their lifetime. It is possible! Realizing that the cost of replacements is the second or third highest expense on most dairy farms, it behooves us to ponder . . . can we get one more lactation out of our cows?

A genetic foundation
Genetics are extremely important in developing a herd of robust and efficient dairy cows. Decades of genetic selection have occurred globally, developing the different types of cows required for different management styles. Producers may favor certain breeds to capitalize on particular milk markets or dairy efficiency. Others may elect to use crossbreeding. In the case of purebreds, some producers utilize genetic evaluations based on "lifetime" or "ideal commercial" indexes. These criteria allow for selection of traits that favor longer herd life.

These "lifetime" traits typically include milk yield, feet and legs, SCC, fertility, calving ease and stature, to name a few. More recently, additional traits, such as feed efficiency and immune response, have been studied.

We all acknowledge the benefits of genetic selection. However, there's more to it than picking the right sire. Once that part is done, we must now steer the ship in the right direction.

Smooth transitions
Recently developed industry tools have shown the typical cost of calving to be $200 to $500-plus per dairy cow. This figure includes both the investment cost (special ration ingredients, vaccinations, hoof trimming, dry treatment and so forth) and the transition disease costs further down the road, both clinical and subclinical.

The wide variation in total costs of calving is primarily the result of transition cow disease. Issues that lead to early departure from the herd include metabolic disease (milk fever, metritis, mastitis, ketosis, displaced abomasums and so forth), lameness, poor reproductive performance and death loss. In order to reduce involuntary culling in our herds, especially in early lactation, we must strive for excellent health of transition cows.

This starts by providing a "Five Star Hotel" (okay, maybe Four Star) experience during the crucial transition period from dry-off to one month fresh. Attention needs to be given to provide the best nutrition, spacious housing and deep-bedded, dry stalls. Even during periods of low milk prices, focusing on details, staying consistent and keen observation can make a positive difference. Evidence-based science has provided tools and products to alleviate many fresh cow ailments.

Remember, prevention trumps treatment nearly all the time. Success in the transition period provides the momentum for an excellent lactation and a ticket to stay in the herd!

Give them space
All of us understand the beneficial attributes of bunk space and comfortable beds. We have seen plenty of data relating to cow comfort, lying times and feedbunk behaviors. Suffice it to say, space and rest are so very important to productive herd life.

Many of the chronic conditions listed on our herd records contribute to premature removal from the herd. Examples might include lameness, elevated SCC, thinness, heaviness, infertility and poor production. Evaluate your dairy. Are there opportunities to enhance space and rest? Watch your cows with a keen eye. Take notes, ask others to observe . . . ponder . . . and then act.

As 2016 arrives, evaluate your current situation regarding herd life. There may be greater opportunities on your farm to lengthen herd life and reach greater genetic potential. For me, it's always great to hear a producer say, "She milks well, breeds right back, and she has never been treated! Just think, she is 8 years young!"

Have a great New Year! Take time to enjoy your own productive life with family and friends!

This article appears on page 11 of the January 10, 2016 issue of Hoard's Dairyman.

Return to the Hoard's Dairyman feature page.