Track and interpret 'just the facts'


"Just the facts, just give us the facts." That is my best recollection of one of the favorite phrases of Sergeant Joe Friday, on the TV series "Dragnet". I am not showing my age too much, am I? Anyway, there are many times in dairy practice when we really need facts to back up the suggestions we give to our clients.

"Just the facts, just give us the facts."

With herd management, you often will have to ascertain key facts to convince clients. For example, improving death loss can be critically important to the success of the herd, but first you have to convince the farm or ranch owners.

That is my best recollection of one of the favorite phrases of Sergeant Joe Friday, on the TV series "Dragnet". I am not showing my age too much, am I? Anyway, there are many times in dairy practice when we really need facts to back up the suggestions we give to our clients.

And in many cases, it really helps if the facts are about their own farm, rather than data from research trials.

It seems that many dairy producers believe that their own operation is truly unique, and that what applies elsewhere is not true for them.

One of the most useful roles practitioners can play is to track and interpret facts that reflect management. When confronted with enough evidence about their own operation, managers may actually make changes to bring improvement. Our value as a source of information can often exceed our value as a technician. The more value we deliver to our clients, the better we both fare.

Case in point

Joe milks about 700 cows and raises all of his replacements. Sherry is the baby calf manager. She is knowledgeable and conscientious, and provides high quality care to the animals under her supervision. When I came to Joe's farm for routine herd visits, Sherry often had me look at one or two sick calves. She also expressed frustration that her death losses, from 1 day of age to weaning, ran around 8 percent, which she correctly believed was too high.

Sherry worked from 6:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. She averaged six days a week, taking every other weekend off. During her shift she would feed milk replacer to all the calves of that age, and tend to any sick animals. If calves were born during her shift, she took care of colostrum feeding. Other farm employees performed these duties when Sherry was off, but she provided instruction for these people.

Sherry was convinced that routine feeding and sick calf treatment was done correctly when she was away, but she strongly suspected that colostrum feeding was not properly executed. She often told me that a sick or dying calf had been born while she was off, and, in her opinion, they were probably immunodeficient.

Look deeper

Joe was not real concerned about the situation. Afterall, before hiring Sherry, he lost 20 percent of his calves, so he was delighted with the current 8 percent death rate. "She worries too much" was his usual comment when we would discuss calf problems. However, Joe struggled to maintain his herd size, and as the value of heifer calves rose, it was obvious to me that the impact of the 8 percent baby calf death loss was substantial.

Let's pause for a moment. Most of you have probably had similar experiences with some aspect of herd management. A dedicated employee wants to improve performance, but the owner is not convinced there is much benefit to gain. How do you proceed to serve your client's best interests?

Why should I care?

I must confess that for a number of months I did nothing. After all, I thought, if Joe doesn't care, there isn't much I can do. But I could see that Sherry was becoming more discouraged, and that her attitude was starting to deteriorate as well. If her boss was satisfied to lose 8 percent of his calves, why should she care?

At some point I suggested to her that if she really wanted to prove her point, she could bleed every calf at 2 or 3 days of age, separate the serum, and freeze it until I arrived for herd check.

Then I could run total proteins on the samples, and she could use those values to evaluate colostrum feeding. She could also correlate them with death losses, and perhaps convince Joe to make some changes.

Sherry liked the idea, and the next time I came to the farm she had a number of samples. It soon became obvious that when calves were born on or shortly before her shift, their total proteins were 6.0 or above, indicating adequate absorption of colostral antibodies.

But for calves born when she was off, they almost all were below 5.0, showing they did not absorb enough antibodies, and in turn, probably did not get adequate colostrum.

Joe saw this data, but was not convinced it had much to do with death losses. In fact, his comment was "That's one of those things they taught you in veterinary college, far removed from the real world". So we had to continue to collect data. After three months, we had information on 74 calves, 30 of which showed total proteins below 5.0. However, only five had died, with three coming from the colostrum-deprived calves, and two from calves with adequate values. We don't have to be statisticians to know those numbers are inconclusive.

Making progress

By the time six months had passed, we were up to 160 heifer calves, and 50 showed total proteins below 5.0. Total deaths equaled 12, or 7.5 percent. Eight of the deaths were from the 50 colostrum-deprived calves, and the other four from the 110 with adequate levels. So, the comparative rates were 16 percent versus 3.6 percent. Are those meaningful numbers?

If I followed the directions in my statistics cookbook correctly, I find the difference is significant at the p=.03 level. And while Joe did not give a hoot about statistics, he did realize that he was losing four times as many calves when they did not receive adequate colostrum. That fact, coupled with the escalating value of heifers, now had his attention.

Shortly after seeing the updated figures, Joe designated specific people to be responsible for colostrum feeding when Sherry was off. He had me do a training session with them on proper protocols. I used the data that Sherry and I had compiled to impress the importance of colostrum.

In the next three-month period, 87 calves were born alive, and only 9 (10 percent) showed inadequate colostrum absorption. Only two of those calves died prior to weaning, both of which happened to have total protein values over 5.0. I estimated to Joe that we had lowered the death rate to roughly 2.5 percent, representing a gain of 5.5 percent (8.0 - 2.5). 5.5 percent of roughly 300 heifer calves a year is 16 animals, with a dollar value of at least $300 each. Even Joe had to admit that "I earned my keep" on this one. From him, that is a supreme compliment.

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