Beef Health Planning

2020 has been a very strange year but it is important to begin looking ahead to next year. Health planning on beef farms plays an important role in setting targets, identifying any issues that reduced productivity and implementing health protocols that will help maximise the output on your unit. Health planning needs to be an active, continuous effort on the farm to gain the most benefit.

Healthy animals are profitable animals

So, what are the most important components of a health plan? I will discuss infectious disease and biosecurity. Other very important aspects include pregnancy scanning – do not carry empty cows; parasite control – internal worms, fluke flies and lice; nutrition; and housing.

1. Data recording:

For me, this is the cornerstone of health planning. As a vet, we need this information to help us target the problems on farm. Are you having an abortion issue? Summer mastitis? Worm issues? As the year rolls on, it is easy to forget information like this. Record it all – in a diary, on a wall planner, on a white board. By doing this, the health plan is focused and targeted to your farm. The adage ‘Prevention is better than cure’ is key here. Ignoring the possible presence on your farm will be detrimental to productivity, profit and welfare.

2. Disease prevention:

The main diseases we see on our beef farms are:

  • BVD – Bovine Viral Diarrhoea. This can almost be classed as a silent disease. It can be rumbling in your herd without you realising. BVD has been estimated to cost between £13 and £31 per cow in Great Britain. The national cost could be as high as £61M per year. It is a viral disease that can damage fertility, cause mastitis and lameness. But it is the immune suppression in the herd that can lead to increased deaths due to pneumonia and scours. This can all be caused by just one animal called a PI. A PI (Persistently Infected) animal will shed BVD virus continuously and suppress the rest of the herd. It may look normal or it may be the one calf/cow/bull that has always been a ‘poor doer’. Detection is done with a blood test. We just need 5-10 youngstock from each management group aged 9-18 months. Call your vet and ask about BVD Stamp It Out – it is a scheme with funding for these blood tests.
A persistently infected (PI) calf
  • IBR – Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis. This is caused by Bovine Herpesvirus. It usually manifests as reproductive and respiratory disease. Transmission is via inhalation. This virus often activates after periods of stress e.g. transport, calving. Signs include high fever, eye and nose discharge and depression. It can remain dormant in an animal – they shed the virus with no clinical signs. On a beef unit, an outbreak of IBR can be catastrophic with high mortality rates even after veterinary intervention. Again, detection is via a blood test or nasal swabs. Prevention is with biosecurity and a vaccine – you can have a marker vaccine for IBR. This means we can detect if an animal has been vaccinated or has been truly infected with ‘wild type’ IBR.
  • Leptospirosis – this is bacterial infection caused by Leptospira hardjo. It is causes infertility and abortion. It can be spread via aborted materials or urine – it is zoonotic so take care when handling any of these materials. Sheep can also carry this bacterium so any mixed grazing can present a risk. Sharing a bull is risky too. Again, diagnosis is with blood tests or testing the aborted calf. Prevention is with vaccination and biosecurity.
  • Johnes – this is a chronic wasting disease of cattle caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis (MAP). Signs are cattle that have profuse, watery diarrhoea and weight loss despite eating. It becomes evident after 2 years of age. Calves <6 months old have the highest risk of infection. It is spread in faeces, colostrum and milk. Once in a herd, Johnes is extremely difficult to control and eradicate. Testing is done on bloods and dung but like IBR, cattle can be infected and show no signs. There is no vaccine. Any positive animals should be culled.
  • Neospora – this is caused by Neospora caninum. It is found in faeces of dogs, foxes, and other canines. It is ingested by grazing cows and causes abortions particularly around 5-7 months of pregnancy. Quite often we will see a Neospora ‘storm’ where multiple cows abort. This is a huge financial hit to a beef farm as it reduces the years calf crop. There is no treatment. Keep dogs out of cow pastures and food stores, remove any aborted material asap. Do not ignore abortions – testing the cow and the aborted calf will give answers and we can put plans in place.
  • TB – TB is not normally included in our lists of infectious diseases, but it needs to be. It is a bacterial infection; it is spread via cattle to cattle contact and wildlife. It has affected most farmers at some point, most likely more than any of the other diseases mentioned above. It needs strict biosecurity to prevent it coming on farm and testing is important.

3. Biosecurity:

Reduced disease incidence by implementing biosecurity. Prevent them coming onto your farm:

  • A simple disinfecting boot dip at the farm gate for all visitors
  • Keep a closed herd (yes this includes keeping the neighbour’s cattle out)
  • No nose to nose contact with neighbours’ cattle – 2m gap
  • Purchase from accredited, high health herds
  • Do not share a bull
  • Isolate any new animals for 28 days minimum prior to mixing with the herd. Test for infectious diseases first.
  • Disinfect any shared crushes, gates etc.

Five key points to remember with health planning:

  • Record data
  • Test regularly
  • Vaccinate
  • Implement biosecurity
  • Communicate with your vet!

Written by Sarah O’Reilly DVM MRCVS