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Terry Lehenbauer: Dairy Herd Health is Paramount

October 15, 2014

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Dr. Terry Lehenbauer with calf.

Appeared in Fresno Bee on September 25, 2014

While growing up on a small dairy farm in Oklahoma, I could not have imagined that someday I would work as a veterinarian caring for dairy cows in California — the No. 1 dairy state. But after earning my veterinary degree, I took the opportunity to pursue advanced veterinary training at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine to become a specialist in dairy cattle herd health. This specialty focuses on keeping cows healthy by preventing disease before it occurs.

I was drawn to California because UC Davis is and was then the world leader in advanced training for preventive veterinary medicine. Veterinarians in California had become recognized as innovators and leaders — changing the way that we keep our cows healthy by visiting dairy herds on a scheduled basis for "well-cow" examinations, regular check-ups and routine vaccinations. Veterinarians were no longer waiting for the phone to ring to alert them about a cow that had become sick or needed medical care.

In the decades that have followed, California has continued to lead the way by producing the most milk in the nation. As we commemorate World Food Day in coming weeks (Oct. 16), I am particularly proud to lead the highly skilled professionals at the UC Davis Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Research Center in Tulare who work with local ranchers so we can all play a part in keeping the herds healthy to produce this abundance of healthy milk.

More than 30 years ago, the UC regents and leaders of the veterinary school envisioned the future in selecting Tulare as the site for this facility in the middle of what would become the heart of California's dairy industry.

Our focus at the Tulare center is training the next generation of dairy cattle veterinarians. Because of our unique programs emphasizing dairy cattle, we provide clinical instruction to veterinary students from UC Davis and to students from veterinary schools across the U.S. and around the world. The Valley location provides access to more than 900,000 dairy cows among 560 dairy herds in Tulare County and the surrounding counties.

Our instructional programs train these future veterinarians in nutrition, reproduction, udder health and milk quality, disease control and treatment, and calf-raising. When treatment is necessary, we train students to implement and monitor drug-therapy plans that will provide cures. And we teach students how to prevent drug residues in milk and meat by following required drug-withdrawal guidelines in cattle they treat. Veterinary students gain knowledge and skills by working with dairy cattle and calves at our clients' dairy farms.

These students gain additional experience by analyzing computerized dairy cattle health and production records and by culturing milk samples in our milk quality laboratory to detect bacteria and other organisms that can cause mastitis, an inflammation of the cow's udder or mammary gland.

Our students also work with diagnostic pathologists at the Tulare branch of the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory on the Tulare campus. This activity helps students to better understand the cause of disease, how it can be diagnosed, and most importantly, how it can be prevented.

My colleagues and I engage in scientific discovery through a variety of research efforts that provide new knowledge for improving dairy cow health and milk production. Ongoing projects are targeting bovine pneumonia, lameness and mastitis — some of the most common and costly diseases in dairy cattle.

Prevention works. Healthy dairy cows produce wholesome and nutritious milk, butter, ice cream and other dairy products that consumers enjoy. We are working on projects focusing on more efficient and sustainable milk production by advancing the nutrition of dairy cows and by improving nutrient management plans, which protect the environment and water supplies.

We at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine are doing all we can to keep our state's dairy cows healthy and to help California continue its leadership as the No. 1 dairy state – and to keep our Valley the heart of that industry. Healthy herds are important to human health and to the continued strength of both our regional and state economy.

Terry Lehenbauer is director of the UC Davis Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Research Center.