Any work protocol is just how we do it here.
A protocol defines a process, which is a series of steps. All work is performed in a process. That process might have been defined by the owner of the business, a manager or supervisor, or by the person doing the process.
As managers, we would like all significant processes to be performed consistently as defined by the right protocol. Of course, there is no business in the world where this actually happens every time, but going in that direction is part of good management. A lot of time is spent managing employees to ensure they follow protocols toward this effort. However, it is not only employees who do not follow protocols; indeed, sometimes we may be our own worst enemy.
One place this can happen is the use of reproductive protocols, whether it is how we breed cows, give injections or what we choose to do with an open cow on reproductive exam day. It is easy to define all the steps in reproductive protocols, but many of us like to treat some cows differently, at different times, for different reasons, when we really should leave those cows in the protocol and walk away.
For example, a veterinarian may be asked when a cow should be bred. This is often asked while he or she is performing a reproductive exam and focused on a headset attached to a portable ultrasound machine.
If you have never seen the screen in one of these headsets, you may not realize one never sees, in flashing, red capital letters, “Breed this cow.” Or, even better, “Breed this cow at 2 p.m.” Instead, we see ovarian and uterine structures that tell us the cow might be close to, just past or in heat.     Determining when to breed a cow is based on the farm’s breeding protocol, whether it be tail paint, standing heat or timed breeding.
Another example is what we do with cows diagnosed open on herd check day. There should be a very well-defined protocol.
For example: Cows with a corpus luteum greater than 1.5 cm receive GnRH and are enrolled in an ovsynch protocol. Cows without a corpus luteum greater than 1.5 cm receive GnRH and a CIDR and are enrolled in an ovsynch protocol.
However, sometimes we cannot help ourselves and want to do something different to an open cow. Maybe she is someone’s favorite cow. Maybe someone thought they might have seen her in heat last weekend. Maybe she is kind of thin. Maybe it depends on who is holding the clipboard. So, we decide, right on the spot, based entirely on that one brief ultrasound exam to pull her from the protocol and do something different. We give her prostaglandin. After that, hopefully someone sees her in heat and breeds her.
We should not do this without a compelling reason. For example, maybe the cow is so lame and so thin there is good reason to believe she will not ovulate. But, there should only be a tiny percentage of cows that are taken out of the protocol for compelling reasons. It is not only farmers; sometimes veterinarians like to pull cows from the protocol, too, for reasons we think are compelling when they are not compelling enough.
Often, when farmers or veterinarians deviate from the protocol, it is done based on experience. However, pregnancy after A.I. is a binomial outcome, meaning yes or no. When we judge success based on binomial results, we need a ton of observations to know if the difference is real and not just chance. So the “Tried that here; it didn’t work” thinking needs to be based on hundreds of breedings, maybe even thousands. Only a tiny minority of farms are large enough to have enough breedings in a reasonable amount of time to make correct decisions. That is why we rely on research and, to some degree, veterinary experience with lots and lots of cows. Research on thousands of cows tells us, for example, that a second injection of prostaglandin in the second part of the double ovsynch protocol will significantly increase conception rates in second lactation and older cows. Such research and experience are used to develop protocols. Our job is to choose the best protocol for the farm and then to work within it. Over time, we might observe results that are not what we expected. In those cases, we then can ask, are we doing the protocol correctly, or is our protocol not the right protocol for us? If we are pulling a significant number of cows out of the protocol, we really do not know what we are actually doing and cannot answer those two questions. Thus, we can only succeed by chance instead of by design.
The key is to be smart about designing and implementing the protocol and then stick with it. Clients in our veterinary practice in southeast Minnesota, on average, have been increasing herd pregnancy rates by about 1 point per year for nearly the last 20 years. Much of this increase is due to proper use of well-designed reproductive protocols. There are about 45,000 dairy cows in our practice. Using a net value of $15 per cow per point of pregnancy rate per year, the total increase in value to the community of our practice’s clients would be $675,000 per year. Protocols work not just for mixing feed or milking cows but also for getting cows pregnant. Sticking with the protocol should be just how we do it here.
Bennett is one of four dairy veterinarians at Northern Valley Dairy Production Medicine Center in Plainview, Minnesota. He also consults on dairy farms in other states. He and his wife, Pam, have four children. Jim can be reached at [email protected] with comments or questions.