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Dairy Data Evolution

Photo of dairy cows with veterinarians in the background

How a small binder led to huge advances in dairy health

Today’s dairy farmers and veterinarians have access to unlimited data streams about the health of an individual animal or an entire herd— but that hasn’t always been the case. In Ontario, before the 1960s, it was commonplace for dairy farmers to call on veterinary care only when an individual cow needed assistance — and there was little written documentation about each visit. But that all changed in the early 1960’s, when two Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) faculty members, Drs. Jack Cote and Bob Curtis, began enrolling herds in a dairy herd health initiative. The program was designed to provide dairy farmers with regular wellness care for their herds. OVC Ruminant Field Services veterinarians would regularly visit herds for physical exams, reproduction checks and began to create written records for each cow, setting the foundation for what veterinarians now know about herd health. 

John Benham, a Rockwood-area dairy farmer and childhood friend of Dr. Cote’s was among the first 20 people to register his herd for the program. Having studied animal husbandry at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College, Benham says he immediately saw the value in having regular access to veterinary services. Benham says Cote, other veterinarians and students within OVC’s Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) program became regular fixtures in his barns. He views the relationship between the farmer and veterinarian as a mutually beneficial one and record-keeping meant any trained personnel could follow up where the last veterinarian left off. 

“I understood the terms they used. I would ask questions, and they knew the research that was going on,” says Benham. 

As with other farmers who signed up for the program, Cote and Benham kept a small black binder in his barn, where veterinarians and DVM students documented important health details and other information about each cow. Benham’s book — now part of the collection at the Barker Veterinary Museum at OVC — contains a page for every animal, with a section for each cow’s lactation. The pages contain detailed handwritten notes about an animal’s calving dates, breeding details and any other health events such as milk fever. Benham explained the sliding metal tabs on each binder sheet enabled a quick assessment of what stage each animal was at — postpartum, ready to be bred, or pregnant.

The OVC Farm Service. (C.A.V. Barker Collection, Archival Collections, University of Guelph Library.)Professor Emeritus Dr. Ken Leslie remembers the book well. While he wasn’t specifically assigned to Benham’s herd, he recognizes his own handwriting among its pages. It was one of the benefits of these herd health books — any of the program’s veterinarians could visit a herd and use the records. Leslie says while the data is rudimentary by today’s standards, it formed the foundation for key evolutions in OVC’s contribution to dairy health. 

“This was the precursor of modern dairy health management programs,” says Leslie. “It recognized that you can’t do anything unless you have data. You might solve a problem once by luck, but if you’re going to have a definitive solution, you need to collect ongoing data.” 

In the years that followed, OVC dairy researchers Drs. Ian Dohoo (OVC 1976), Kerry Lissemore (OVC 1984) and David Kelton (OVC 1984) transferred that early data from the original on-farm binders and other sources to computerized records for the first epidemiological studies of health and disease determinants on a herd basis. In the 1980s and 1990s they used the information to assess the rate of milk fever, of pregnancy loss, and several other problems in each herd, providing linkages to data points that had never been linked before. 

“Those became landmark publications in veterinary literature, as the first epidemiological analysis. These efforts all became possible because we had the necessary information from these books,” Leslie says. 

And while today there are software programs and data collection systems that link an animal’s health records, breeding records and milk production, it was new territory in the 80s and 90s. As OVC became a leader in dairy cow health, opportunities for veterinarians — such as the Dairy Health Management Certificate Program — evolved, establishing OVC as a critical hub of knowledge and continued learning. 

“These programs have been immensely important in moving the concept of this book into the stratosphere,” says Leslie. “For example, when Cote’s team introduced a new treatment for cows that had just calved, John Benham’s records showed the treatment was successful, because we could look back through the herd health before and after.” 

In an early report from OVC’s Ruminant Field Services, Cote concluded that for farmers who took full advantage of the program, returns on investment were as high as 300 to 500 per cent. Benham is hesitant to put a number on his own experience. 

“What a special experience for me to have contact with all of these top-class veterinarians doing the work in our herd,” Benham says. 

Today, the majority of cows wear a transponder to record individual health, activity and behaviour, but before that technology existed, OVC researchers made it a practice to record data relevant to herd health. Adds Leslie: “That in itself was progressive in its time, and our significant contributions to the dairy industry evolved out of those early innovations.”

Today the University of Guelph continues be a leader in dairy health by providing world-class research and innovative solutions for our dairy industry. Dairy at Guelph, a cross-faculty group created at U of G, works to improve networking and collaborations between researchers involved in any area relevant to dairy and end-users such as dairy producers, industry and government agencies. Learn more at www.dairyatguelph.ca.


Originally published in the Spring-Summer 2018 issue of The Crest, the research, teaching and health care magazine of the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College. 

Second photo: The OVC Farm Service. (C.A.V. Barker Collection, Archival Collections, University of Guelph Library.)