We hear a lot of clichés about the importance of teamwork. But few businesses rely on teams as much as large livestock operations, where animal performance and profitability depend on an array of interrelated decisions regarding health programs, facilities, animal handling and nutrition. Large dairies and feedyards typically contract with consulting veterinarians and nutritionists to oversee their respective programs, and while each have defined roles, today’s best consultants recognize that collaboration, not turf protection, creates the best chance for success.

Building a team

Upon hiring a new consultant, an operation needs to lay the groundwork for a team approach. Dave Sjeklocha, DVM, of Cattle Empire LLC, Satanta, Kan., prefers having a nutritionist as his ally rather than adversary. In his current position at Cattle Empire, he has this in nutritionist Tim Murphy, PhD, and he counts himself fortunate that he had good relationships and cooperation with nutritionists in his former work as a consultant. He says he’s heard numerous stories of adversarial relationships, frequent finger-pointing or turf protection and negative outcomes in the past, but says that in most cases these days, feedyard veterinarians and nutritionists work well together.

In a situation where the feedyard hires a new consultant, Sjeklocha suggests the manager, veterinarian and nutritionist spend time in a face-to-face meeting to set goals and discuss how the team can work together toward achieving those goals. Moving forward, he says, the veterinarian and nutritionist should meet or communicate regularly to discuss problems they have seen and seek each other’s input and help in developing solutions.

Dave McClellan runs McClellan Consulting Service, Inc. in Fremont, Neb., providing nutritional consultation to mostly mid-sized feedyards across the Midwest. He also stresses the need for collaborative teamwork among all the decision makers in a livestock operation.

When McClellan began consulting as a young nutritionist, he frequently came into situations in which the consulting veterinarian was older and more established. He would make an effort to meet with the veterinarian as soon as possible to introduce himself and make it clear he wanted to work in concert with the veterinarian to benefit the cattle and the operation overall. Today, as he has worked with most of his clients for many years, he takes a similar approach with young veterinarians taking on services in his client operations, contacting them as soon as possible to discuss how they can work together.

McClellan believes it is critical for team members to talk through common concerns, issues or problems, then collaborate to find and implement solutions. At least once per year, and ideally more often, the farm management and consultants should sit down for a face-to-face meeting to look at the “big picture,” reviewing the operation’s goals, progress made, continuing challenges and strategies for improvement.

Less formally, consultants should share information frequently and direct their energy toward solving mutual problems. McClellan prefers to arrange a schedule that staggers his and the veterinarian’s visits, believing it improves efficiency. Rather than both being on the yard at the same time, the staggered visits provide a professional set of eyes on the operation at more frequent intervals. He makes it clear that if he sees a significant health problem during one of his visits, the first thing he’ll do is contact the veterinarian, and he expects the same courtesy if the veterinarian sees a nutrition-related problem. This way, the two of them can begin developing solutions and present the client with a strategy rather than just a problem.

Consultants as coaches

Marty Faldet, PhD, PAS, of GPS Dairy Consulting, LLC, is based in eastern Iowa. He says part of the defined vision statement for GPS Dairy Consulting is to work as part of an integrated team, with respect for other team members and development of productive business relationships.

It is important for consultants to act as coaches and teachers, Faldet says, and to understand that individual people learn differently, such as through seeing, hearing or doing. It also is important for consultants to maintain flexibility in communication methods, with an understanding of which approaches resonate best with key individuals.  

According to the GPS Dairy Consulting website, a coaching mindset “seizes opportunities to invite collaboration to problem solving and drawing on fresh perspectives from those involved. Leading from behind, asking questions before creating solutions, and developing a sense of contribution from all key stakeholders is involved in coaching. Ultimately, the team owns the solutions, direction, and strategies to move forward which is a process led by the consultant.”

Sometimes, Faldet says, it takes action from the client to bring the veterinarian and nutritionist together in addressing a problem or setting protocols. He believes the consultants should reach that point ahead of the manager.

Cooperative decision making

Faldet cites an example in which a dairy manager contacts the veterinarian when a percentage of cows go off feed. The veterinarian suspects a feed problem, such as mycotoxins in the feed. If the veterinarian simply tells the manager it is a feed problem, and the manager then passes the problem on to the nutritionist, the problem might not be solved in a timely manner. If, on the other hand, the veterinarian contacts the nutritionist to discuss the problem, each consultant can determine action steps. In this case, the veterinarian could collect blood and manure samples for analysis, while the nutritionist could obtain feed samples and work with feed suppliers to identify possible quality issues. Ultimately, the veterinarian and nutritionist could reach consensus and go to the manager with proposed solutions. Dairy managers are not interested in finger-pointing or turf protection, Faldet says. They just want answers.

Tom Strause, DVM, with Stateline Veterinary Clinic, Darien, Wis., tells a related story. In a client’s dairy, he noticed an increase in retained placentas, mentioned it to the nutritionist and asked him to test for mycotoxins in the feed. Those tests were negative, but the nutritionist investigated further and found the farm was not feeding calcium chloride to pre-fresh cows, which turned out to be the source of the problem.

Strause believes that when he and other veterinarians in the Stateline practice share the same goals and concern for cattle health with consulting nutritionists, dairy clients benefit. He cites the relationship he and his practice colleagues share with nutritionist Garrett DeBruin, PhD, who partners with them on several area dairies. A key to success in solving health problems, he adds, is for the veterinarian and nutritionist to enter the discussion without preconceptions or ego-based biases.

Strause and DeBruin regularly check with each other to discuss what they see in the dairy — general observations such as manure characteristics and cow body condition — each serving as an extra set of eyes to help the other identify trends. “We don’t talk every day,” Strause says, “but probably three times each week.”

Recently, Strause says, DeBruin called to say a client dairy was seeing a 5-pound decline in milk production. Strause also noted an increase in displaced abomasums on the same dairy. Working together, the team discovered increased butyric acid fermentation in the silage bunker, leading to subclinical ketosis in cows. The nutritionist adjusted the ration to limit the silage content and milk production improved.

In another example, a dairy was seeing fluctuations in feed intake over time, with associated outbreaks of Clostridium perfringens and hemorrhagic bowel syndrome. The team investigated and found an association with large batches of wet distillers’ grains. Intake would decline as the dairy fed the older portion of a batch, then jump when a new batch came in. Strause says he would not have known about the fluctuations in intake without discussions with the nutritionist, but the information helped the team track down the problem.

Sometimes, Strause says, the dairy owner’s immediate priorities need to be balanced with long-term interests in animal health and productivity, and it falls on the consultants to find that balance. Recently, Strause recalls, a client dairy put up a late crop of silage that was drier than usual. Milk production declined, and with milk prices low, the farmer wanted a solution. The nutritionist increased the starch content of the rations to compensate. Strause began seeing a few bloody ulcers and mentioned it to the nutritionist, who asked if the cases came from a specific set of pens. It turned out he was using a somewhat different fermentable starch in those pens, and once he backed off on the starch content, health improved. The team then helped the owner understand the need to balance production and health in this case. It is important, Strause says, that the owner trusts the consultant team and knows they are acting in the best interest of the operation.

Turnaround time in that case demonstrates another benefit of frequent, direct communication between consultants. Strause observed a few cases of bloody ulcers over about three days. Once he contacted the nutritionist, the ration was changed in one day.

Technology aids communication

Faldet notes that most dairies in recent years have adopted information technology and networking systems, often at a faster pace than their consultants. He has worked to learn and embrace these systems in an effort to maintain continuous communication with managers, consulting veterinarians, herdsmen and suppliers such as representatives from animal-health or reproductive-service companies.

The adoption of herd-management software and other systems in the dairies, along with access through smart phones and tablets, allows the consultant to view and apply “just-in-time” information, rather than trying to catch up with trends or emerging problems during a semi-weekly visit to the site.

Ideally, Faldet says, the veterinarian and nutritionist have access to the same data and reports, can view and share them in real time and use the information to identify problems early. From there, they can begin implementing solutions in cooperation with key team members at the dairy.

Faldet and his clients use web-based file-sharing services such as Dropbox, regular communication through e-mails and text messaging for quick updates. The dairy team, he says, can track and apply data like never before. Veterinary and nutritional consultants do not need to be the experts in information technology, but if they can learn enough to share and apply information available to them, they can become more efficient in identifying and solving problems.

Teamwork opens doors

In his days as a consultant, Sjeklocha recalls instances in which veterinarians were looking to expand their client base, and nutritionists with whom they had established productive relationships would recommend the veterinarian to their client. Veterinarians would do the same by recommending a good nutritionist, hoping to bring a positive team approach into operations they served.

The opposite also can occur. Simply put, McClellan says, if the consulting veterinarian and nutritionist do not have a working relationship with each other, they are not bringing value to the operation, and probably both will be fired.