PHOTO: Cloudtail the Snow Leopard/Flickr
Ryan Ridgway, DVM
August 23, 2016

Q:

I’d like to get a biosecurity plan in place for my small herd of cattle. Got any advice?

A:

Your herd’s health plays an incredibly important role in your farm’s welfare and productivity. From impacting your animal’s metabolism (and therefore production), cost of treatment and death, disease and parasite issues can be very expensive. A preventative herd-health management plan, which involves input from your local extension agency and livestock veterinarian, will help avoid issues as much as possible and keep you prepared if an emergency arises.

At the same time, the most difficult part about biosecurity is getting producers to actually spend time and money to prevent diseases. If you do a good job, you don’t easily see any results because there aren’t any sick animals, so good job taking the initiative and choosing to set up a plan for your farm. The following are a few tips I’ve picked up while working with producers.

1. Keep Good Records

Bookkeeping may be a tedious task that most people avoid, but it’s the most important part of almost every farming endeavor, including biosecurity. Proper records let you track your farm’s performance over time and catch any lapses in your biosecurity plan before you have a disease outbreak.

What most producers don’t realize when they start health records is what data is worth tracking: Health expenses and deaths are important to record, but it’s your animal’s production and feed costs that are the most important indicators of your overall herd health. (At the same time, don’t forget the importance of genetics, nutrition, parasite management, water quality and predator protection in your overall livestock management routine.)

Health expenses can help you track sick animals, but logging production decreases can show when your animals have to shift nutrients from production to their immune systems. With proper records, you will see drops in production before your animals show any signs of clinical disease, allowing you plenty of time to step in and rectify the issue. This also shows you how much money you would be losing if you only tracked sick animals.

2. Set Up Vaccination Protocol

Like most common livestock, cattle have vaccinations for most major infectious and highly communicable diseases.

Boosting your herd’s immunity through a proper vaccination regimen is the best way to prevent clinical disease outbreak and also reduce subclinical disease, where the animals appear healthy but are actually fighting off an illness. Subclinical diseases tend to cost farmers more than clinically ill animals, and many farmers don’t even realize they’re occurring unless they track their herd’s production.

On a similar note, be sure to monitor your herd’s internal and external parasites. Take random fecal samples into your local veterinary or diagnostic lab, and check your cattle for skin problems, such as dermatitis and scabs. Flies can be carriers of communicable diseases, too.

3. Pay Attention to Water

Runoff water and drinking water sources can carry many pathogens and parasites and are often overlooked in biosecurity plans, particularly in the prevention of scours, a diarrhea that affects newborns. When designing your pen layout, always make sure your water runoff is either completely diverted from other pens or runs away from your most susceptible animals, i.e., from youngest to oldest. When planning your calving pens, make sure that the wintering pen runoff doesn’t accumulate in the calving pens. Often calving pens are put in sheltered depressions and the winter runoff concentrates the pathogens that cause diarrhea, leading to scours even though the calving pen was empty all winter. Be sure to keep your drinking water sources clean, too, as wild birds can transmit disease and parasites through these sources, as well.

4. Follow a Proper Workflow

Your biosecurity program needs to prevent the spread of diseases within your herd as well as prevent their introduction because most cattle diseases are already in some herds. Your animal management should include a workflow plan that prevents exposing animals with lower immunity to higher pathogen loads: Proper workflow is always youngest to oldest and the sick pens only after finishing the healthier pens.

You should have separate equipment, feeding tubs and clothing, including boots and gloves, for the sick pen; if this isn’t the case, all shared equipment needs to be cleaned and disinfected between use. There should also be foot baths to wash and disinfect boots at all exits from the sick pens. Chlorohexidine solution is a good disinfectant to use in your baths, which workers and guests should be required to use before entering your livestock housing or grazing paddocks. You can also ask people to use disposable boot covers while on your property.

5. Quarantine New Arrivals

To prevent diseases from entering your herd, you need to quarantine new animals for a minimum of 30 days. During this time, if they are going to get sick with anything contagious, they will show signs by the end of the 30 days. This quarantine period will keep your new herd members from exposing your animals to any pathogenic organisms or parasites before they become sick. In some instances, the new animals may appear healthy but still be fighting off the infection—think subclinical diseases again—so never bypass the quarantine because they look healthy.

6. Purchase From Healthy Herds

Cattle can be carriers of abortion-causing diseases, including campylobacterisosis and trichonomiasis, without showing any signs. They can also carry other diseases, including tuberculosis and brucellosis, which may not cause abortion but are still potentially deadly. Even endemic diseases such as bovine respiratory disease, aka shipping fever, can be reduced by purchasing from healthy herds.

While these tips will help you set up a biosecurity plan, you should talk to your local large-animal vet and have a herd health audit done and ask for their help on a herd-health management plan. This will let you tailor your biosecurity and herd health management to the diseases and parasites your herd is most at risk for.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Hobby Farms.


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