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Herd health programs help with costs

By Kylene Scott

Mom always said, "Don't go outside with wet hair in the cold because you will get sick." Is it really that simple? What about for livestock?

Overall animal health has a number of influential factors, weather being one of them. One day it's sunny and 50 degrees in January, the next it might be below zero with snow on the ground and a relentless wind. These conditions make managing herd health a daunting and often difficult task. However, good management of animal health is an important part of surviving economically in the cattle industry.

So what can producers do to improve their overall herd health? A couple of things, but most importantly start with a plan.


Jessica Laurin, DVM with the Animal Health Center of Marion County in Kansas, said producers need to keep their goals in mind when forming a health program for their cow-calf herds.

"The area of the country will influence a health program, as to diseases present in the area, feed and water quality, and environmental temperatures and weather conditions," she said. "A producer should have a working relationship with a veterinarian that they respect and trust, so that the two can have a partnership in developing a health program that serves that individual producer's needs."

Kansas State University Research and Extension Livestock Specialist Sandy Johnson agrees. She suggests three things:

-Good nutrition;
-A partner (i.e. your local vet) who knows what the disease pressures are in the area and can advise you in the most current preventive management procedures; and
-Good, timely management.

Johnson said nutrition is the most important aspect and needs the most time, thought and attention. It should be monitored year-round.

"Nutrition is the foundation (of overall animal health)," Johnson said.

To ensure proper animal health, Johnson suggests the following:

-Avoid/reduce stress;
-Isolate new arrivals;
-Isolate sick animals;
-Don't carry contaminated material from one group to the other on your shoes or clothes (don't treat the calf with scours and then go tag newborn calves);
-Use, handle and store pharmaceuticals according to guidelines;
-Keep pens and equipment clean;
-Minimize physical stressors: wind, mud, dust, provide adequate space for feeding and resting; and
-Minimize behavioral stressors: weaning, isolation, animal handling.


Nutrition plays a very important role in the overall health of the herd, but also can affect health, fertility and longevity.

"Nutrition is a huge factor in cattle production operations," Laurin said. "Not only is it the largest economic factor, but it establishes a basis that other aspects benefit from."

Testing both water and forage is valuable, Laurin said.

"Nitrate and sulfate levels in water should be checked and addressed as needed," Laurin said. "Because feed represents the largest financial variable for livestock, forages should be tested annually so that rations can be adjusted appropriately."

In her area of the country, Laurin commented they have hard water and areas with high sulfur/sulfate levels, and this can counteract with mineral levels in feeds and forages.

"Many producers utilize distillers grains that also carry higher levels of sulfur, so both the water and feeds need to be tested before formulating a ration," Laurin said.

Johnson also thinks producers can benefit from testing water sources at least once.

"Excesses of certain minerals can interfere with the absorption of others and often times water sources contribute to that issue," Johnson said.

The same goes for forages and other feedstuffs.

"Testing forages and other feedstuffs for nutrient content is a critical step in providing adequate nutrition," Johnson said. "Nutrient value of feedstuffs is not constant. Testing feedstuffs and balancing rations is a good risk management tool and allows for planning to obtain any supplements needed."


As far as recordkeeping goes, Laurin suggests animals be identified individually and in groups. Records need to be kept as to where each animal and group came from, when they were brought in, and any subsequent movement.

"Weights need to be taken to track daily gains and can be used to track response to sick pen treatments," Laurin said. "When cattle are ever given any medication, that needs to be recorded by both individual animal and by group. A withdrawal date needs to be established for any medications given, and the animal is not to leave the place until the withdrawal is met."

Each time an animal or group of animals receives a pharmaceutical or feed additive, the following things should be recorded: identification (group or individual), product (serial number and expiration date), amount/dose given, route of administration, and date(s) of administration. If animals experience any reaction, this would be the base information needed to address any questions related to the product. In the case of antibiotics or other items with withdrawal times, this information ensures proper guidelines can be followed. In the case of dewormers or fly treatments this helps with product rotation to prevent resistance.

For reproductive programs, cows need to be individually identified and tracked for performance. Calves need to be identified individually and linked to the dam.

"A simple identification system is three or four digits, with the first digit representing the year the animal was born," Laurin said.

Laurin suggested that producers should also be committed to keeping appropriate records and reflecting upon the herd health program on an annual or regular business with the veterinarian. Johnson said the same.

"Good recordkeeping can help solve problems much faster than in situations where there are no records," Johnson said. "How do we know if pregnancy rates are reduced if they are never measured?"

The help

Since employees are often around the animals more, it is important for them to know normal cattle behavior and to recognize when an animal is not acting appropriately. New employees should be paired up with more experienced ones to be trained.

"Veterinarians can assist operations in training individuals to understand what is normal and what is not," Laurin said.

Laurin is appreciative when producers contact her.

"I appreciate when producers do call me and give me a heads up when something is not going as they expect, so we can start to develop plans to head off a 'wreck,'" she said. "I think that when a producer has a good relationship with his or her veterinarian, the producer can utilize the veterinarian in many ways, such as a sounding board for ideas."

Having an objective third party is very important, she stressed.

"As someone who is familiar with their operation, but not there on a daily basis, the veterinarian can look objectively at the operation and help make changes to correcting problems," Laurin said. "Veterinarians who routinely work with cattle operations understand appropriate diagnostics to utilize, not just for health issues, but can also guide producers correctly when there may be a feed or nutrient issue as well."


Laurin said the aspect that requires the most time and attention is actually setting up the herd health program and performing the annual review.

"It is easy to get wrapped up in the daily tasks, but can be hard to commit time away from the operation to look at records and strategize," Laurin said.

As cow-calf producers, many already implement good management practices, but it never hurts to evaluate what you are doing.

"I notice that producers who perform tasks on a consistent basis (i.e., feed the same amount in the same way at the same time every day) typically demonstrate good management practices in other areas," Laurin said. "Cattle thrive on routine and consistency. Doing tasks on a timely basis also ensures good health." Johnson says if the producer is unable to keep the animals healthy based on existing management, it just makes sense to consult with others.

"An integrated resource management approach is often a good way to evaluate options when considering changes. This means we understand if we make changes in one aspect of a program, it has broader impacts on the operation," Johnson said. "That team may involve people with expertise in animal health, grazing management, nutrition and banking and others as appropriate to the operation."

Kylene Scott can be reached by phone at 620-227-1804 or by e-mail at kscott@hpj.com.

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