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Are practices doing enough about infectious disease in cattle?

by
01 September 2010, at 12:00am

Complaints have been made, by members of committees and organisations, that veterinary practices are not doing enough about infectious diseases in cattle. 

These rumblings do not appear to be based on detailed information or surveys but a general feeling that more needs to be done. So, any ideas how the activities of veterinary surgeons and veterinary practices can better match the needs of cattle keepers? 

Before raising the issue of training in veterinary schools and the difficulties for new graduates to develop the sort of herd health planning that is seen as the way forward, there is a concern over Government policy. Detail upon detail will be emerging over coming weeks but some cattle practices have already lost their role with TB testing. 

It is said that if the change of policy was introduced over a year or so then the practices would have time to develop further initiatives to occupy cattle expertise. This might benefit the farmers and allow vets the time to deal with infectious disease prevention and control, without four days a week of testing. However, change has arrived in days and weeks and veterinary surgeon lay-offs are anticipated. 

Troubles never come singly...

Troubles never seem to come singly and the needs of the farmer clients have to be addressed so that there are fewer disease build-ups this coming winter. Partners and managers may need to put TB in a box to be dealt with as best as possible and concentrate on whether more can be done to reduce infectious diseases that include Johne’s, BVD, IBR, mastitis and lameness. 

Infertility may be considered a consequence of other disease but for herd performance all else hinges on the availability of replacements, controlled calving, and milk in the tank as requested by the dairy. 

In order to understand the issues better, I tracked down the president of the British Cattle Veterinary Association to his practice in Salisbury. You may think that close to home would be an obvious place to meet up, but Keith Cutler is a busy chap and seems to be drawn in many directions. 

Here is someone who has had his ear bent by various committee members representing the spectrum of cattle production. Our conversation has prompted some thoughts and aspects that the profession may wish to consider. 

Sitting in a tray on a desk is a collection of sample bottles labelled up and about to be used by dairy clients for their quarterly assessment of the bulk milk. Every dairy herd in the practice has milk samples interrogated and the results recorded. Is this the norm for all practices? 

Deepest Wiltshire does not have the greatest density of dairy herds but there are over 1,200 cattle herds in the county so the beef programmes would represent an opportunity. Within the practice there is interest in developments with beef suckler herds and one can imagine the extensive grazing available on Salisbury Plain. The local landscape determines the farming and the vetting. 

Immediately it is apparent that an answer to the question “Why aren’t vets doing more?” is not going to be effectively answered by looking at one veterinary practice. Maybe it is time to find out exactly what is going on. 

At technical meetings there is often talk of intervention levels. So, how many client’s herds within a practice are routinely monitored for infectious disease by analysis of samples? Is a third an acceptable level, or double that or treble?

Why do some practices have higher figures than others? 

Once a level is seen as practical and worthwhile, is it reasonable to question why some practices have higher figures than others? Does a 90% testing level indicate greater disease control or are the vets promoting testing to cover a lack of confidence in diagnosis or disease management? 

The thoughts that start to swim around begin to uncover some of the difficulties and it is likely that practice management, as well as veterinary expertise, plays a part. 

Some multiple branch large animal practices have vans collecting samples on a daily basis. No doubt a client of one practice finds it easier to have samples analysed than clients of another practice. 

CPD is being arranged and at the end of each meeting a performance sheet is completed and most speakers are awarded over three-quarters of the available points. This reviews the ability of the speaker to put across the technical content but it is more difficult to know whether the information was able to be used to improve disease levels on farm. 

How about a “vets of the year” award for the veterinary practice that achieves the lowest levels of disease on their clients’ farms, after investigation? It would appear that you have to investigate, otherwise nobody has disease because it hasn’t been looked for or, if it has been looked for, it hasn’t been recorded. This topic begins to become more and more complex. 

Education is a big issue and the programmes for next year are already in train. Clearly, cattle keepers are becoming more knowledgeable and less prepared to suffer avoidable loss. 

Who most needs the education? 

The dog-and-stick farmer is still the salt of the earth and even if he doesn’t use the vet until the last resort, his levels of stockmanship skills may not be matched by staff on the bigger units, so it appears unreasonable to think of the small farm as a reservoir of disease waiting to afflict the bigger units. 

Who, therefore, needs the education: the farmer, the vet, or the farmer with the vet? There could be an increase in complementary veterinary skills and farmer skills developing together in the same course. 

Keith admitted that there were topics that the practice members felt could be better delivered by someone from outside the practice. These “specialists” are invited to address a group of clients but they tend not to be sought from neighbouring practices. 

Someone from a hundred miles or so perhaps, because, and here there is a slight coyness in the response, the competitive nature of modern veterinary cattle practice is the elephant in the room. Not defined perhaps, not accurately stated but something to consider. 

This aspect of the competitive business of veterinary medicine may be one of the drivers to perform better in the eyes of clients. If you ask yourself the question, “Where would I like to work for a week to learn more ways to reduce disease?” would it be the practice that is up country or would it be a neighbour? The technician side of the brain would probably look to work with the best and the business developer side maybe wants to assess the competition. 

It seems timely to consider a world without substantial income from TB testing and a world where more is to be demanded from clients. A battle for viable work may be one of the outcomes. Another could be greater cooperation between vets so that groups of neighbouring farmers address the local disease issues.

Healthy management of an area may be way forward 

A probable level of future understanding is whether cattle herds can control infectious disease by relying on their own resources. By its very nature the term infectious indicates a spreading of infection and time after time talks highlight breakdowns because of cattle mixing due to gaps in hedges, or bull sharing, or water course contamination. 

Instead of hoping for the ideal farm, with double fencing and a managed environment, one reality is that neighbour activities undermine the will to invest fully in health programmes. Healthy management of an area could be the next big idea. 

If local veterinary surgeons are prepared to share their expertise and work towards a common goal, would the uptake of veterinary services to control disease increase rapidly? In some districts this may be easier than others but if the viability of practice is threatened there may be an opportunity to do what you do better, to expand and communicate effectively with colleagues and clients.