Vets need to be able to work more closely with farm staff and outside advisors so that collective recommendations are made on how best to progress with animal health management.

According to Matt Dobbs, managing director of the Westpoint Veterinary Group, this approach would ensure a more effective and increase the likelihood of a successful outcome for all concerned.

“There are many variables that affect herd health such as nutrition, housing design, milking routine and bedding material – and with input from all members of the team, informed decisions can be made on the most effective way forward for that business," he said.

“However, even if we don’t adopt this for every aspect of the farm management, I believe all dairy farmers should, at the very least, use this approach for diets. Many health issues in dairy herds arise from inadequate nutrition.

He added: “Intelligent nutrition with preventive health protocols, formulated by a professional farm team, will lead to a stronger, healthier herd – and a more robust business, better able to face future market challenges.

“Ultimately, dairy farmers must look to achieve a ration that balances pH – that is absolutely key to herd performance. Glycal Forte is a product designed to address this particular issue. It’s a rumen protected glycerol product which, due to its unique solubility profile and acid binding properties, has been shown to be very effective in maintaining optimal ruminal pH as well as providing glucogenic energy and bio-available calcium, thus improving all round health and performance."

He said that feeding cows in the UK can be a huge challenge due to the weather, with other countries, which have drier climates, and a much more consistent weather pattern, able to have a more defined system.

“Forages in the UK can vary significantly and that can result in very inconsistent intakes. Forage analysis can also be misleading. And when calculating a ration, fibre can be overlooked – with a focus on energy, crude protein and dry matter. However, UK contractors are now working on forage chop lengths to improve dietary fibre content.

Dr Dobbs pointed out that a visual assessment of the ration can give big clues as to how forage content will affect rumen performance. He advised a chop length of around 1-2inches for good structural fibre content, which cows are less able to sort out of the TMR, though drier silages will need to have a shorter chop length to ensure good clamp consolidation and intakes.

Looking ahead to spring, grazing opportunities can vary day to day in the UK, affecting intakes, which in turn can lead to many approaches to grass management.

“Spring calving herds in particular can have a battle on their hands; getting enough fibre into cows can be difficult, and the high sugar content of spring grass, combined with concentrates fed in the parlour, both of which ferment rapidly in the rumen and drop the rumen pH, predispose the cow to many potential health challenges, but in particular, sub acute ruminal acidosis (SARA).

“I use this as an example as it is the instigator of many other health issues and so if we can focus on reducing SARA prevalence, we will by default, significantly improve herd health.

“Our awareness of SARA has significantly increased over the past few years. It’s a condition that occurs when the rumen pH becomes more acidic.

"Typically, if the pH is below 6 it is a concern – 5.5 would be a problem. Classic SARA symptoms include scouring, dirty tail head, cows drop their cud and you’ll find balls of it in the food trough and at the front of cubicle stalls. Appetite is reduced, and dry matter intakes suffer, meaning that affected cows will lose weight, have lower fertility and a compromised immune system – which makes them susceptible to a whole host of other issues such as mastitis and lameness.

He added that SARA is commonly associated with high yielding cows on high energy diets, but in reality, it can potentially occur in any dairy herd at any time. Especially at risk are herds that feed large amounts of concentrate in the parlour. Slug feeding large amounts of rapidly fermentable carbohydrate leads to a sudden rise in the production of volatile fatty acids, meaning that the cow spends a large proportion of each day with a rumen pH below 5.8, affecting performance and increasing the amount of energy used by the rumen microbes for maintenance.

“Its cost is impossible to know exactly but with one in five dairy farms experiencing problems with SARA it’s fair to say we need to focus on prevention – and it is 100% preventable.

“There’s no ‘one size, fits all’ for herd health. I strongly believe in routine fertility checks for preventive health. This gives you an opportunity to know the herd, know the routines, look around to spot early problems and monitor body scores – this small amount of time can be a very wise investment.