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Vets and Nutritionists – What is the role of a vet in relation to on farm nutrition?

 Charlotte Reid BSc BVSc MRCVS

What and how a cow is fed directly affects her productivity, health, fertility and much more. Furthermore, purchased feeds are generally the single biggest cost on farm – it is therefore vital that vets work together with farmers and nutritionists to optimise our patients’ diets, and in doing so the economic gains to our clients.

Aside from the impact on productivity, there are many clinical health problems which arise from poor nutritional management of cows. From Left Displaced Abomasums (LDAs) to clinical acidosis and milk fever to calving difficulties. The longer-term effects of poor nutrition can also include poor fertility and increased susceptibility to disease.

Vets are often called to treat these diseases and ‘fix’ the animal. However, as these diseases are a symptom of the cow’s nutritional management, it is important for the farmer, vet and nutritionist to work together to identify why the cow ‘broke’ in the first place. If we can understand why a cow ‘broke’, we can both treat the disease and put in place proactive preventative steps for the future.

From a nutrition perspective, it may not be a simple case of a ration not being formulated correctly. There is the potential for variability between the ration on paper, to the ration that is fed and the ration the cow consumes.

People often describe this concept as ‘the 4 rations’:

1. What the ration sheet says

2. What is put in the wagon/in front of the cow

3. What the cow eats

4. How her digestive system and rumen microbiome process the nutrients she has consumed.

As vets, can take samples to investigate cows’ energy status, mineral nutrition, rumen pH and screen for internal parasites and infectious diseases. This information can be invaluable to nutritionists to ensure the formulated ration is having the desired effect in the animals, to highlight the need for additional supplementation and rule out disease. Nutritionists also like to obtain information on pregnancy tests success, body condition score and dung consistency so that they have a full picture of the health of the animal and can work alongside the vet to investigate any problems, such as a disease outbreak, on farm.

An example of where vets and nutritionists can work together

If a herd is experiencing lots of LDAs, a vet may decide to start monitoring ketone levels as a part of fresh checks on a routine fertility visit. This gives an indication of the energy balance of the cow and how well she has transitioned. The vet might detect an increased incidence of ketosis one week. The vet is then well-placed to walk around fresh cows and close-up dry cow groups to assess cows’ rumen fill and faecal consistency, stocking rate, feed space and feed availability. Good communication between the vet, farmer and nutritionist will then help establish the possible causes of the problem and allow ongoing monitoring of the effects of any changes made.

Whilst vets are focused on the health and wellbeing of the animal, nutritionists have the experience of formulating rations according to available feedstuffs and have a thorough understanding of the economics of feeding cows. A collaborative approach ensures the best outcome for the farmer; health and productivity go hand in hand.

Tips for integrating your vet and nutritionist

– Introduce them – organise an opportunity for farmer, vet, and nutritionist to meet

– Keep open communication between all parties

– Organise regular reviews meetings

– Make a note of significant diet changes and follow-up effects on fertility and incidence of disease such as retained foetal membranes, metritis and mastitis

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