How much should my vet bill be?

By Charlie Lambert, Lambert Leonard and May, Shropshire

“How much should my vet bill be?” This is a question often posed to a farm vet by a dairy farmer – expecting a one-line answer.

Pressure is frequently placed on the farmer by his financial consultant/farm adviser to reduce costs wherever possible. As the vet and medicine spend on a modern dairy farm can often be substantial, it is a favourite area for them to target.

Figures of about one pence a litre, or £100 a cow, are sometimes set as targets. This means a 200-cow herd of Holstein Friesians with an annual milk output of 2m litres of milk, ought to be able to keep the vet spend at about £20,000 a year.

There will be a significant difference in total vet costs and medicine spend between a closed herd rearing all its own replacements and a flying herd with no spend on youngstock.

Within our own dairy practice, we have clients with a vet spend ranging from 0.5ppl to 1.5ppl and there are many reasons for this variation.

Surely, the only figure really meaningful to the farmer is how much profit he has made for every cow at the end of the year. The reason I say this is that many of the vet costs on a successful dairy farm pay for themselves. If vaccinating for leptospirosis and BVD can increase conception rates, reduce foetal losses and reduce other clinical disease, then should they be seen as a cost?

Should use of intramammary dry cow therapy be seen as an expense if it can be shown to reduce mastitis incidence in the herd, reduce cell counts and keep replacement rates to a minimum?

Are fertility visits to be seen as an unnecessary expense if the vet can bring the calving interval down? For example, on a 200-cow herd, the vet and medicine spend is increased by an extra £40 a cow to reduce the calving interval by 21 days. The money saved (based on a £4 a day cost of a cow not in calf) is £84. This represents an extra profit of over £8000, so is this a cost, or an investment?

So what is the answer to the original question and how can a vet help manage the costs on a dairy unit?

Firstly, a comprehensive review of the farm and disease status should be carried out and a vaccination and dry cow programme agreed. It does not make financial sense to wait until you have clinical disease on the farm before implementing a vaccination programme if you are at risk; this is an all too common practice on farm. It certainly makes no sense to stop vaccinating for a disease just because you haven’t seen clinical disease for some time; this also occurs too frequently.

The farmer and vet should also highlight areas of concern, most likely mastitis rates, cell counts, lameness incidence and fertility parameters. There are well recognised costs associated with all of the above diseases and when realistic targets are set, a farmer can be shown that spending money wisely on his vet input can increase his farm profit.

The vet may also be able to break down last year’s vet bill on farm into specific categories. These may be things like preventative therapies, mastitis treatments, fertility treatments and vet time on farm. When you do this, it is easier to see where the money is being spent.

It makes a lot more sense to target specific areas of Vet and Med spend and then understand in which areas the spend is essential and which areas it could be reduced.

When a vet practice is used to doing cost breakdowns in such a way, benchmarking farms of similar size and yield can be a more helpful way of answering the question: “How much should my vet bill be?”

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