Thursday, February 13, 2014

Economics of veterinary herd health and management programs

In 2012, the World Buiatrics Conference was held in Lisbon, Portugal. As you might know from one of my previous posts, I was there as keynote speaker on the economics of production diseases. During these type of conferences, main sponsors are often allowed to organize a mini-session on a topic they want. The contents are the responsibility of the sponsor and not of the scientific committee of the conferen. So the three main sponsors of this conference (Pfizer; now Zoetis, Hipra and MSD) had all three a mini conference. During the Pfizer/Zoetis minisymposium, Miel Hostens and Bonny van Ranst (Ghent University) gave a presentation on The future of cattle veterinary medicine: a challenge or an opportunity. Their message was clear: the vet is the most suitable person to give advice to farmers. And many of us agree with that statement.
So there lies an enormous opportunity for veterinarians and these opportunities go through Veterinary Herd Health and Management (VHHM) programs. Hostens and van Ranst presented an interesting tool they developed that can be used in veterinary herd health and management programs. The tool is web-based and can be used this type of work, to analyse data and have these analyses available through a website: www.dairydatawarehouse.com.
In their lyrical presentation about the benefits of VHHM, there was a little dissonant. Reference was made to a discussion on Veeteeltforum (an internet forum connected to the Trade journal Veeteelt in which I publish quite a lot) about the economic value VHHM. The topic was based on an interview that I gave, together with Sake Kooistra of Alfa Accountants on advisory services to dairy farmers
Conclusions of an MSc thesis study, using accounting data of Alfa Accountants, was that the economic results of farms with VHHM are the same than on farms without VHHM. Farms with VHHM do have better milk production and better udder health. But they also have higher veterinary costs. And although in theory the advantages should more than outweigh the additional costs of the VHHM, in these data it did not show. The economic results of the farms in a VHHM program are equal to the farms without a VHHM program. Interestingly, the farmers’ trade journals all had very negative interpretations of this news. Becasue of these negative headings, Miel Hostens and Bonny van Ranst reacted also negatively on this research, as if we should not publish it. And yes, if you are advocating VHHM programs it is disappointing that VHHM does currently not lead to better economic results (at least not in the Netherlands). At the moment we are analyzing these data more thoroughly, so you will hear more about them in the near future.
 In my opinion, however, we should look at ourselves. How good are veterinarians in VHHM. They are good in the routine things, pregnancy checks, treatment protocols etc. but how good are they really in advising? Their knowledge is superb, no doubt about it. Moreover, in my opinion they often see the areas of the farmer’s health management that need to be improved but are they able to get that message to their farmers?
An interesting study of one of my PhD students, Marjolein Derks, revealed that the objectives of the farmer often deviate from the objectives that the vet thinks the farmer has (oops), that advisory talks are not really open (no or hardly space for questions) and that the consulting technique is quite bad. The scientific paper on this is recently published in The Veterinary Journal.
Now let’s combine the these two issues. There is a huge potential of VHHM. Obviously this potential is not utilized in practice. Let’s work on that utilization. Vets: learn how to become a successful consultant and farmers: you pay the vet, so make sure you tell the vet what you want him/her to do.
And about the economic results: my interpretation is as follows: with VHHM you have a smoother running farm, potentially higher milk production level and lower disease levels. That is good for the farmer (more fun if your farm runs smoothly) and good for the cows (better welfare because of less diseases). And all that without costing money!! That is a quite unique selling point I would say. 

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