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Modern Dairy Vet Tech

Proactive Dairy Veterinary Medicine

Ronda Payne

Who better to take on dairy veterinary medicine than someone who has lived on a dairy farm? Often, it’s that love of the herd that leads skilled veterinarians to explore new tools and techniques for ways to keep cows living longer and healthier lives while producing quality milk.

Steph Rhebergen, doctor of veterinary medicine and certified veterinary acupuncturist, shared how the team at Abbotsford Veterinary Clinic works together to maintain the health of individual cows and whole herds. Many of these vets, like Rhebergen, grew up on dairy farms. Perhaps that’s why this team is passionate about the industry and sees their job as more about prevention than anything.

“We do a lot of prevention. That’s what I want to do,” she notes. “That’s our main bulk of veterinary work. We’re trying to prevent the sickness from happening in the first place.”

Each member of the clinic’s team follows the vision established in 1991 by Dr. Rich Vanderwal, the principal leader of Abbotsford Veterinary Clinic, and that is to be proactive in cow health and performance. Each team member has herds they are the primary vet for, plus they each specialize in different health care areas.

“My typical herd I see every two weeks,” says Rhebergen. “I have a regular scheduled visit. That helps us to monitor what’s happening health-wise on the farm so we can prevent bigger issues.”

On that visit, she will check the overall health of the herd, check for pregnancies, check the cows that have recently calved, and then look at any sick cows or those cows with problems or issues the dairy farmer may be concerned about.

“We can pregnancy check anywhere from 28 days on,” she explains. “We use ultrasound and most of our vets use that technology.”

Like with human pregnancies, cows go through a lot of changes during transition. Not only giving birth, but also metabolic changes and other issues tied to the calving period.

“If you have a rough transition period, it can lead to foot ulcers and lameness,” she says. “We want them to have a comfortable place to lie down and rest.”

Steph Rhebergen, doctor of veterinary medicine and certified veterinary acupuncturist.
Steph Rhebergen, doctor of veterinary medicine and certified veterinary acupuncturist.

Rhebergen suggests a program specific to cows in transition that includes nutritional aspects and quality bedding. She says access to feed at the right levels to produce milk is of utmost importance, with cow comfort close behind.

“The gold standard in bedding is sand bedding and a deep bedded stall,” she explains. “Mattresses are what most farmers have and if you have enough bedding materials on top of the mattresses, you’ll be okay.”

A lack of bedding material can lead to hock issues, while not taking care of the nutritional needs of the transition cow can lead to foot ulcers.

Beyond primary herd visits, Rhebergen’s area of focus is individual cow health. This comes with tools like chiropractic, acupuncture, laser therapy and herbal remedies.

“I like to come at it from the integrated health perspective,” she says. “Cows actually respond quite well to herbs because they are used to eating grasses.”

While many of these techniques are essential for organic herds, she also incorporates these tools into conventional herds to improve cow health and healing.

“For injured cows, I use laser,” she explains. “To decrease pain and inflammation, and increase circulation to the area. Without that, she may have gone to slaughter. Now, I have a chance to help her heal and get her back into production.”

Acupuncture has been around for centuries, though its use on cows is still relatively new. Rhebergen enjoys seeing the change this methodology can create for a cow.

“It was definitely fun to introduce [acupuncture] into the Fraser Valley,” she says. “But now everyone’s calling up and asking for acupuncture. It’s pretty exciting for me to be able to help each individual cow. We’re giving these girls a chance.”

Working alongside laser and acupuncture is thermal imaging. Thermal imaging can help Rhebergen identify the source of issues and allow her to narrow her treatment to the right area of the body or alter treatment methods.

“Thermal imaging also helps me see if there is maybe a toe ulcer going to come,” she notes. “It also helps me tailor my acupuncture treatments as well.”

Abbotsford Veterinary Clinic was one of the first to introduce an IVF (In Vitro Fertilization) program.

“We’re able to achieve genetic advancements a lot sooner,” Rhebergen says. “That kind of helps us advance the genetics of the program. It can happen a lot quicker when you’re using that kind of technology because from one event you’re getting 20 embryos. It’s a lot more offspring more quickly.”

Another program offered by the clinic is embryo transfer. This is where the cow is bred, then seven days later she is flushed to harvest the embryos.

Not every cow has a great experience with her health. The clinic is able to offer sensitive antibiotic testing to help get cows get back into the production lines more quickly following an injury or illness.

“We’re doing a lot more antibiotic testing,” says Rhebergen. “The system at the clinic is quite sensitive to test antibiotic residue.”

Another set of tools comes from the milk itself. Rhebergen notes there is a greater volume of information available about the cow’s health from looking at the milk.

“There’s so much more data we can pull out for on-farm testing,” she explained. “Do we need to change nutrition on the farm or milking practices, or is there anything we need to change to improve the health of the animals? It gives you a better clue on tweaking the program so you can increase the health that much more.”

Another aspect Rhebergen enjoys in her role, and sees as being a benefit to the herd, is being integrated into the farmer’s team of specialists. During farm visits, she may find herself discussing improvements to the barn, new feed options, or bedding changes.

“We have a working relationship with farmers. We like to have a good idea of what’s happening on the farm and help them make decisions, which is good for the ongoing health on the farm,” she says.

Complete with the veterinarian, nutritionist, hoof trimmer, farm owner/manager, even the banker or architect, the farmer’s team can discuss what’s best for the herd and the long-term outlook for the farm’s continued success.

“The promise of bringing a safe and sustainable food product to the public and being able to work with the cow herself…it’s a pretty great industry to be part of,” Rhebergen says. “That’s what I grew up doing. I love the cows. She’s such an amazing creature. She eats grass and she turns it into something that’s healthy for human consumption.”

Veterinarians are so much more than someone to be called upon in case of an emergency. With special tools and techniques, they continue to grow in their role as part of a dairy herd management team.


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