Herd health

Herd health management programmes refer to certain systematic practices in the herd aiming to maintain the health and productivity of animals at the highest possible level of efficiency, thereby ensuring the competitiveness and profitability of the farm. Herd health management programmes are complex, meaning that all fields are under observation simultaneously – young stock health, udder health, milk quality, reproduction, metabolism, feeding, and hoof health.

In order to implement herd health management programmes and to assess the accompanying economic impact and changes in herd health, NGO Estonian Dairy Cluster (MTÜ Piimaklaster) ordered a two-year pilot study (April 2017 thru March 2019). During the course of the project suitable herd health protocols for Estonian dairy farms were developed and tested, including HACCP system mechanisms in five Estonian dairy farms of different sizes: one undertaking with approx. 100 cows, three farms with 600-800 cows, and one herd with approx. 1800 cows.

The project resulted in a confirmation of the positive benefits of the application of the herd health programme on the health and production of animals, also being accompanied by an improvement in the profitability of the production. If the weighted average herd health costs for the period were EUR 22 per tonne of produced milk, then in four out of the five farms these fell by an average of EUR 7-8 per tonne. Since herd health management programmes are accompanied by reduction of veterinary drugs use, an improvement in the health and thereby also the wellbeing of animals, their implementation also helps to fulfil the expectations of consumers. In the future, herd health management programmes should be a natural part of the farm quality control system.

Who makes up the herd health team?

The herd health management programme is a team job, in which the important parties are the employees of the farms themselves, led by the farm manager, and the veterinarian(s) responsible for providing advice concerning the herd. It is definitely important to include all involved parties (e.g. agronomists, feeding consultants, breeding advisor, etc.) in the herd health management programme. Where appropriate, important external consultants are included in the process.

How to carry out the herd health management programme?

The prerequisite for carrying out the herd health management programme is continuous and objective collection and registration of health and production-related data. All of the abovementioned fields are characterised by certain performance indicators, the comparison of these with targeted values helps to identify problematic areas. In farms, the majority of data is collected at the individual animal level, but is summarised at the herd level in order to assess the health and performance of the herd. The consolidated farm reports and reports issued by Põllumajandusloomade Jõudluskontrolli AS (Estonian Livestock Performance Recording Ltd) are a great help when it comes to analysing herd indicators. By analysing data from different fields the strengths and weaknesses of a herd are determined. Adhering to the factors inhibiting the achievement of results, a herd health management programme action plan is prepared. The continuous monitoring of data (Drawing 1) also takes place in those fields where the farm finds the performance indicators to be satisfactory. Doing so makes it possible to detect and intervene already in the case of minor deviations, i.e. substantially greater emphasis than normal is placed on preventing problems.

What is required from the farm when carrying out a herd health management programme?
Effective implementation of a herd health management programme requires, in particular, excellent cooperation and trust between team members. The farm manager, or other individual associated with the programme, must complete a monthly questionnaire in which the indicators concerning the health and productivity of the herd are consolidated (Annex 1). This data is important when it comes to identifying problem areas in farms, as well as assessing the performance of the programme. The veterinarian(s) responsible for carrying out the herd health management programme generally visit the farm once per month, during the course of which the strengths and weaknesses of the herd are mapped with the aid of the questionnaire including performance parameters as well as with the help of the motivational questionnaire (Annex 2). The latter is important to order the works and activities based on the priorities of the farm. This is followed by the analysis of the problems by the veterinarian – the factors causing problems at the given farm are identified and a plan of action is prepared for the farm, which helps the farm to achieve the set goals.

Responsibility for the implementation of the programme and the consistent advising of the farms was taken care of by veterinarians from the Institute of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Sciences of the Estonian University of Life Sciences: Kerli Mõtus, Piret Kalmus, Kalmer Kalmus, and Ants Kavak; the analysis of the economic indicators of the involved farms and the impact assessment of the project was performed by Ants-Hannes Viira and Helis Luik-Lindsaar from the Institute of Economics and Social Sciences of the Estonian University of Life Sciences.

Overview of the project can be downloaded here: