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By Kristin Lewis Hawkins
Developing a comprehensive herd health program is integral to maintaining a successful operation of any type, and it can often determine whether your cattle operation is costing money, holding its own or in the black. While drafting a plan from scratch can seem like an overwhelming feat, breaking it down into calendar format and taking it season by season can prove a more manageable task.
An important partner to enlist in the creation of your plan should be your veterinarian. If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, sitting down with your vet to go over your calendar and health plan is a much wiser investment than a string of emergency calls.
It is important to find a large-animal veterinarian who is familiar with production animal management and who will consult with you on a health plan and calendar.
Put it in writing
Recordkeeping is a necessary component of your calendar. Not only is it a good quality assurance practice, it will provide valuable information that can be used in treatment and production evaluation. Knowing when cows calved, when animals were treated and vaccinated, or when bulls were turned out should all be part of your seasonal records.
Having measurements and records such as calving rates and keeping track of which cows are open can help you make decisions about culling and marketing when the time comes. Computer programs and spreadsheets can aid you in these decisions, and there is help through your county agricultural Extension agent to find one that works for you.
There are also online sources for herd health calendars to help you get started. They can give you an idea of the types of records to keep and how to use the data to make your operation more productive.
More than a vaccine plan
Your herd health calendar should be more than reminders of when to vaccinate your cows. According to Dr. Arn Anderson, Cross Timbers Veterinary Hospital, a complete program should be more than just vaccines.
“Herd health is far more in-depth, complicated and unpredictable than just a vaccine recommendation,” he says. “A good plan should also include attention to biosecurity, disease prevention, and nutrition.”
Anderson says filling in your calendar should include testing and vaccination for leptospirosis, trichomoniasis, persistently-infected bovine viral diarrhea (BVD-PI), bovine respiratory disease (BRD) and any other disease endemic to your area. Your veterinarian can help you decide which tests to run, what vaccines to give and when to perform breeding soundness exams.
While your calendar will follow your own protocols and guidelines, it should still break down into four general seasons. Each season should have its own considerations and management, including regional weather and parasite control.
Other seasonal considerations:
Vaccinations should be given the right way and to the right animals to get the full effect. Make sure your vaccination schedule fits your animals for the season and their age. Vaccinations can fail for a variety of reasons, including improper nutrition, improper dose, and heat stress. Proper nutrition is vital to getting everything you can out of an animal’s immune system and getting the appropriate response to a vaccine.
Some vaccines will take time to gain full effectiveness and last a limited time, so giving a vaccine at the wrong time can be a costly mistake. Work with your veterinarian to make sure your calendar is properly timed for the cattle you have and the region where you live. You could be throwing money away on vaccines given at the wrong time.
“Most of the time when a vaccine fails, it’s human error,” Anderson says. “The wrong dose and the wrong time to the wrong animal can be worse than doing nothing.”
You may also have wildlife in your area that need special consideration, such as mosquitos, feral hogs or deer, and the diseases they can carry.
Don’t follow tradition when deciding how your calendar should operate. Many factors can affect what you do — and when — so make sure your decisions are based on what is best for you, right now. Marketing options, feed and forage supplies, weather considerations and regional disease fluctuations can affect how and when you perform certain protocols.
Include facility maintenance in your calendar. No matter when you work calves, be sure you have planned time to check to make sure everything works before the animals are coming down the alley. Plan clean-up after you have worked them. Pencil in checking fences or forage fertilization, as well.
Unique to your operation and your location
There is no one-size-fits-all plan. There are some considerations that are different for cows that calve in the spring than for calving in the fall, but some main guidelines still apply to both. It is always recommended to consult with your veterinarian for advice. Their knowledge of regional diseases, parasites and climate is a valuable tool, and possibly one that can save time and money in the long run. When and how to deworm your cattle can vary, and your veterinarian can assist with a plan to get the best results. And if your area is experiencing an outbreak of anaplasmosis or an increase in cases of leptospirosis, you may need to take extra precautions.
The cost of a veterinary consultation is often much lower than that of death loss, lower calving rates or lengthy — and often expensive — treatment of disease. Sit down with your vet and go over the dangers of each season.
“He or she can help you find the holes in your plan or offer alternative ways for you to achieve a better result,” Anderson says. “You should be doing something every quarter, preparing or testing for the next season or keeping records for what you have right now. There is always something you can be doing, especially with all the technology out there for us to use.”
Should fit your goals
Knowing why you are raising cattle will give you a better idea of what your goals are. Do you want to raise more calves? Better replacement heifers? Are you using cattle to manage your land or as a recreation?
“Plans differ for the type of operation you have, what your goals are and what you want to achieve from your cattle herd,” Anderson says.
Identifying what type of operation you can realistically sustain and manage can also provide a clearer roadmap to a workable plan. You could be putting extra focus on priorities that aren’t in line with your overall goals. Or you might be overlooking something that could help you achieve them. Are you trying too hard to produce more calves, when you could look at how you can increase what you are getting at market with better quality animals?
If your region is better suited for stockers, take advantage of what you have. Be realistic about what you can — and cannot — handle for each season. Will you need additional help when it’s time to work calves? A health calendar should include indications for additional help, equipment, or supplies when they are needed.
Be flexible and vigilant
Once you have your calendar set and your plans made, that is when those unforeseen circumstances need to be addressed. Weather gets too wet, too dry or your neighbor’s bull decides your grass looks greener, and you have a wreck in the works before you can get the fences restrung.
Plan for emergencies, contingencies and life’s interruptions. This is another good topic for discussion with your veterinarian. Go over what you should be looking for when it comes to illness, what to do when illness or injury happens, and when you should call. Have those biosecurity plans set before a problem pops up.
Making a herd health plan will not only help you operate more efficiently, it can possibly save you time and money. Having a calendar, following it closely and remaining vigilant will keep you and your operation moving forward throughout the year.
Example of a seasonal health calendar
- Proper nutrition management of pregnant cows, including body condition scoring
- Observation and examination of cows for conformation problems
- Vaccination schedule appropriate for pregnant cows
- Evaluation of open cows and culling considerations
- Parasite control
Calving and post-calving
- Observation of cow health post-calving and problems with calving for future culling consideration
- Observation of newborn calves, including birth weight and behavior, and including colostrum intake
- Examination and evaluation of newborn calves: castration, dehorning, identification, tagging
- Vaccination schedule appropriate for newborn calves and cows
- Nutritional evaluation for nursing cows to maintain body condition
- Parasite control, including flies
Calf weaning and cow pre-breeding
- Physical exams and nutritional evaluation of weaned calves
- Will the calves be marketed or retained?
- Vaccinations and boosters
- Evaluation of body condition scores of cows
- Bull breeding soundness exams and testing
- Cow and heifer breeding exams and evaluation
- Breeding synchronization
- Make culling decisions
- Parasite control inside and out, especially for young animals
- Record bull turnout or artificial insemination (AI) activity
- Palpation to determine open heifers, gestation time
- Nutrition evaluation of bulls and heifers to retain body condition
- Vaccinations and boosters
- Parasite control
Herd Health Calendar is excerpted from the August 2018 issue of The Cattleman magazine.