The author is a partner in the Maria Stein Animal Clinic, Maria Stein, Ohio.

We are approaching three years since the COVID-19 pandemic started. As the disease becomes endemic, we start to see the unintended consequences of control measures. While these measures saved lives, many other lives were altered. We now see that 80% of first to third grade children who started school during the shutdown do not read at grade level. Math scores in underclassmen high school students are a full 10% lower than ever.

Veterinarians who trained under COVID-19 times do not have the experience they need to do their job. We spend considerable time mentoring them in areas that were previously expected as basic knowledge. We don’t mind the mentoring, though, because we need to make good doctors.

Technology has helped reduce the impact of absence with remote access to records and better data recording. But the reality is that virtual is not the same as in person. We need to be there to make the most difference.

I watch dairies get presented with record analysis by people who log into the computer, create a report, and either present the report in the farm office or email a summary without ever going to the barn. This process has reduced the chance of the information being valuable because it doesn’t verify that the records are accurate. Without being on the farm, the person doesn’t learn the farm culture and what is possible. They can’t address the topics that are of most concern to management. They also can’t see why the numbers are what they are; one can only speculate what’s going on in the barn. You need to be there to make a difference.

It takes a closer look

No person can know everything, and anyone can miss things occasionally by not knowing. It is not okay to miss things by not looking. You have to be there to look.

A consultant showed up at a farm team meeting with multiple graphs of the somatic cell count and the clinical mastitis case rates over the last several months. It would have taken me all day to create those graphs, but it only took me 10 minutes in the parlor to see that cows’ teats were not being dipped. Dip was disappearing because the farm was using a system that was supposed to be the latest in dipping technology, but when the arm on the dipping robot came out, every cow raised its right rear leg, tilting the teats away from the dipper and creating a miss. I’ve seen better accuracy from other systems. If those fail, use a person. You had to be there to know what was going on, though.

On another farm, calf pellet intake was high, and that was considered a good thing. I watched the calf feeder use a board to scoop pellets because the scoop was missing. So, waste was actually high. It was an easy fix, but you had to be there to see what was happening.

In another case, calves were dying and colostrum bacteria quantifications were high. Doing adenosine triphosphate (ATP) swabs is a popular way to check cleaning protocols and a good place to start. Putting in sophisticated colostrum management systems with more labor and equipment is common and was being discussed.

Walking around, I saw that colostrum was harvested in a separate milking stall in a timely manner. The colostrum, however, sat for awhile before it was chilled. Bacteria had the opportunity to double every 20 minutes. It was an easy fix to change to immediate colostrum feeding, and calves stopped dying. But you needed to be there to make a difference.

Prefresh dry matter intake was low on one client’s farm. A camera system was discussed to review when feed ran out and when it was pushed up. That would work, but the simpler fix with prefresh cows is to feed them late in the afternoon. Then there is a pile of feed through the night and people are in the barn when they run out during the day. Of course, those people need to make decisions to feed more or earlier when residual feed is low, but the situation is obvious without extra work. Milk cows, on the other hand, need to be fed in the morning. You had to be there to suggest this change and make a difference.

On another dairy, the new maternity manager had higher mortality and metritis rates than we expect. Working side-by-side as he assisted calvings, I could see that he had not been taught the importance of hygiene or that it is okay to let labor progress normally.

Retraining had great results, and there was a side discovery. For calving tools, there was just one 30-inch obstetrical chain, so we supplied a full set of calving equipment. It is frustrating to find farms that don’t give workers a few hundred dollars of tools they need yet have a $200,000 tractor out front.

Records and observations

Records played a role in many of these cases to show that results are out of bounds. Finding why the numbers were lacking, though, took walking around the facilities. We have to create a system to do both.

I like to review records before arriving at the farm. That gives me some areas to focus on. I walk around recording potential areas of improvement and discuss how things are going with managers and workers. I often look up more records in areas that were concerns while walking around. Then we meet with the management team and discuss our findings. I also check if progress was made on previous concerns at some time during the meeting. Sometimes, we leave the meeting room to look at things that came up during the discussion. A report is then generated.

This dairy industry is going to keep changing, but the basics of taking care of cows remain the same. We have to be there to know that the basics are being applied for every cow. You have to be there to make a difference.