Limit hospital pen moves to help protect dairy wellness

Farm Forum

When a dairy cow develops a disease, producers take steps to get her well. Unfortunately, the common task of moving a sick cow to the hospital pen may be doing more harm than good.

“We think about a hospital as a place to get well, but that isn’t necessarily the case,” said Mike Lormore, DVM, MS, MBA, director of Dairy Technical Services, Zoetis. “Hospital pens can be a risky place, especially for fresh cows, and this can affect the entire dairy. Producers need to understand the risks of managing hospital pens and work to avoid unnecessary pen moves.”

Hospital pen risk: Contracting another disease

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that one in every 20 inpatients has an infection related to hospital care. Similarly, dairy hospital pens can be risky environments, especially for fresh cows that may have depressed immune systems, increasing their likelihood of contracting a new infection.

“With proper treatment and care, a dairy cow has a good chance of recovering from an initial disease incident,” Dr. Lormore said. “However, if a cow gets a second disease, especially Salmonellosis or Mycoplasma mastitis, it’s much more likely that cow will not recover to previous production and health. Additionally, she is at great risk of early removal from the herd.”

The prevalence of Salmonella has been on the rise across U.S. dairies. In a hospital pen, the risk is even greater. A cow is 11 times more likely to contract the bacteria in a hospital pen than anywhere else on the dairy. Salmonella infections can lead to reduced milk yield, weight loss, poor reproductive performance and death in dairy cows.

Mycoplasma bovis (M. bovis) is another bacterium that easily can be contracted in the hospital pen. In one study, 70% of cows entering the hospital pen contracted M. bovis clinical mastitis within 12 days of entering the hospital pen.

Hospital pen risk: Controlling disease from the herd

During their stay in the hospital pen, fresh cows can become carriers of disease. If they don’t show signs of a clinical infection and are returned to their regular pen, the bacteria they now are carrying can follow them back to the milking herd. For example, cows with subclinical Salmonella infections can shed the bacteria to their herdmates without showing any symptoms. This puts your entire herd at risk.

Hospital pen risk: Mistakes leading to drug residues

When cows with different illnesses enter the hospital pen, they also have different treatment protocols and needs. Mistakes can happen, which can lead to violative drug residues.

“Drugs don’t cause drug residues — people cause drug residues,” Dr. Lormore said. “When hospital pens get busy, a leg band can be missed, the timing or dosage for a treatment can get confused, and proper records aren’t kept. These mistakes can all lead to violative drug residues which diminish consumer confidence in the food we produce and damage your dairy’s reputation. You could even lose your ability to do business if these mistakes continue.”

Avoid hospital pen moves with help from your veterinarian

Avoiding hospital pen moves, especially for fresh cows, should be a priority to help protect dairy wellness. Your veterinarian should be your first resource for finding ways to avoid hospital pen moves.

“The biggest mistake dairy producers make is not working with their veterinarian enough on treatment protocol development and execution,” Dr. Lormore said. “Producers need to establish a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR) so they can work together with their veterinarian to find solutions that better manage fresh cows and avoid risky hospital pen moves.”

With a valid VCPR, Dr. Lormore noted your veterinarian can help with several aspects of managing fresh cows. Here are some tasks to discuss with your veterinarian:

• Review dry and fresh cow management practices to help prevent disease

• Evaluate the environment and nutrition for dry and fresh cows to ensure optimal cow performance

• Develop effective treatment protocols if disease arises

• Consider treatments with zero milk discard to eliminate the need for pen moves

• Train employees regularly and monitor for compliance with treatment protocols

• Establish and review good record-keeping practices, and monitor disease incidents and treatments

For more information about working with your veterinarian to reduce violative drug residues on your dairy, visit or visit with your veterinarian or local Zoetis representative. The Milk and Dairy Beef Residue Avoidance Manual from the National Milk Producers Federation also serves as a valuable educational tool and resource as you develop your on-farm best management practices necessary to avoid milk and meat residues.