A look at the big picture helps with animal health

I was recently looking through the results of a survey one of the weekly online farm newsletters I receive had conducted; one of the questions posed pertained to ranking the top 5 issues facing the beef industry.  Not surprisingly, animal health issues made the cut.  Certainly, some beef operations have more difficulty with animal health issues than others do. Some of the variation relates to the type of business; a backgrounder, who makes their living adding value to other’s mistakes for example, is taking on more risks from an animal health standpoint in hopes of a greater financial return from their added efforts.  From the cow/calf operator’s standpoint, with proper management and some preventative maintenance, animal health issues shouldn’t be a major setback.  Some of the major diseases mentioned as problematic by the respondents were respiratory disease, scours, pinkeye, and parasite issues.

            We have long known that proper nutrition and stress reduction strategies for our grazing animals is one of the first lines of defense we have against disease outbreak.  A more holistic and intense approach to management where forage resources and animal nutrition are considered along with the use of a disciplined preventative health program might unlock the key to reduced illness and added profit potential.  Below, you will find some of the concerns mentioned and ways to mitigate their impact. 

Internal Parasite Control  

            There is a bit of disagreement among the animal health community as to the proper parasite control timing regime in the cow herd.  The general consensus is that you shouldn’t need to deworm your herd more than twice per year and in most instances, only once.  The consensus in much of our area is that once per year shortly after calving is probably the best approach in most instances.  Regardless of your calving season or deworming schedule, we can do ourselves a favor by reducing parasite load through management of the forage base.  Most internal parasites make their way into the body by way of consumption of infected forages.  The majority of the parasite load on the plant is located near the ground, in the bottom 3 inches of the plant.  Leaving pastures with some residual growth will not only reduce parasite load, it will also make for more efficient use of the forage and quite possibly more season long growth in the process.  Most parasites also have a relatively short life cycle of somewhere around 3 weeks.  Through rotation of pastures that leads to a long rest period, we can often times break the parasite life cycle and reduce incidence of problems.  Some individual animals tend to be more prone to parasite infestation than others are so if you can identify them and cull them; you will be doing yourself a favor.

Fly Control

            Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to completely eradicate flies; they manage to out maneuver us in some way with every effort we throw at them.  The best approach is a multi-pronged one.  Flies are quick to adapt tolerance to new chemicals so it is a good idea to rotate between pyrethroids, organophosphates and the newer technologies and keep them guessing.  Like with changing chemicals, it is a good idea to have several different approaches such as a feed through option and spraying or fly tags, or adding a biological component such as fly predators.  Keep in mind that you need to keep on top of the chemical modes and follow directions on the lifespan of the product; it is near the end if the efficacy period when the product is weakening that we see flies able to build tolerance to a product the worst.



            Pinkeye is a multifactorial disease, meaning it takes a few wrongs coming together jut right to cause an outbreak.  An irritant such as seed heads, sticks or any course, protruding object leaves the eye watering which attracts flies.  Those flies carry bacterial from the manure piles to the eye and from eye to eye, spreading the outbreak.  The first step is to manage the pasture so there aren’t seed heads and stems that potentially cause eye irritation.  Ideally, we would do this through grazing management, however, mechanical means like pasture clipping or chemical seed suppression methods work too.  Fly control is the other necessary approach.  In widespread cases, vaccination against pinkeye is another approach that might be necessary.  There are a number of products available now but I would encourage you consult a nearby veterinarian and see what one is working on locally common strains of the bacteria;  The vet can even culture infected eye specimens and develop an autogenous vaccine tailored to your specific farm.  

Calf Scours

            Calf scours is almost entirely a man-made problem brought on by having the herd closely confined at calving time.  Developing a rotation to allow manure to dry down and kill bacteria is a good starting place.  The Sandhill’s Shuffle method, which splits of pairs as the cows calve into separate group pastures until the calves get a little more age on them, is another valuable tool.  Consider the weather at calving and try to avoid wet muddy times of year for the calving season if possible.  If you continually have scours issues, it might take the addition of a scours vaccination program to aide in getting some colostral immunity passed on to the newborn calf to keep it healthy.

Respiratory Disease

            Mature animals should have virtually no issues with severe respiratory disease.  When we see an outbreak in the calf crop, it is generally caused by a combination of nutritional, environmental and lack of immunity factors.  Vaccination is a cheap insurance policy, at less than $10/ hd to protect your valuable asset, the calf crop.  Along with vaccination, it is advisable to plan weaning in a way that will reduce stress on the calf and avoid weather related stresses.  Keep the animals on a sound nutritional plane and eating through the weaning process and you will be ahead of the curve. 

            At a recent conference, I heard a former college instructor and friend of mine, Dr. Jason Salchow DVM, use the analogy of a meal prepared slowly in a crock-pot compared to one heated up in a microwave in relation to herd health.  The crock-pot mentality will produce a better end product but it takes more time and effort to get there, where the microwave approach is the fast approach for the here and now.  From a herd management standpoint, we should always strive to be more like the crock-pot prepared meal but at the same time don’t forget about the microwave like options and be willing to use them as a backup plan when the need arises.        

Source: Andy McCorkill, MU Extension Livestock Specialist