A watchful eye on herd health
Veterinarian emphasizes five fundamentals this spring.
Story by Jena McRell | Photos by Jerod Foster
Winter 2021, like much of the previous year, will be etched in memory for generations.
The mid-February storm brought snow, ice and historically low temperatures across the southwest, leaving many with a week-long battle for power, water and fuel. While the official industry impact is still being tallied, it is certain livestock producers will feel its implications for months and years to come.
Dr. Peter Wunderlich, a veterinarian at Washington Animal Clinic near Brenham, says basic elements of herd health are even more critical during a challenging year.
“We usually see a winter storm like February’s about once a decade, but I’ve never seen single-digit temperatures,” says Wunderlich, who has spent more than a decade serving ranchers in the state. “With cattle coming out of this, especially those with nursing calves, we have to worry about their health and performance.”
He offers five fundamentals for cattlemen to keep in mind when managing potential short- or long-term setbacks in animal health and performance.
1. Nutrition remains top priority.
“Herd health always starts with nutrition,” Wunderlich says. “We want to talk about body condition scoring cattle coming out of the winter. How successful was our winter-feeding program? How efficient was our hay and protein supplementation?”
Evaluating body condition and understanding the current nutritional state of the cow herd is paramount, Wunderlich explains, as the scores offer insight into how to manage nutrition going forward — especially for lactating cows in early spring breeding.
“Over the past few years, we’ve seen herds that traditionally have high reproductive rates in the 90% range slip to the 60% range, because even though those cows look healthy visually, we suspect they are behind nutritionally,” Wunderlich says.
Body condition scores of 5 or 6 are considered ideal for breeding and calving.
Wunderlich says separating the herd into production groups according to body condition might be necessary to give thinner animals targeted nutrition to improve pregnancy rates at breeding. Herd health veterinarians or nutritionists can provide a roadmap to make progress toward this goal.
Wunderlich advises getting started on pasture management early, especially plans for spraying weeds and brush control.
“Start planning what you’re going to need to keep those cows in a good body condition,” Wunderlich says. “Sometimes that is going to require some supplementation with protein or other feedstuffs.”
2. Put bulls and cows to the test.
Since the herd this winter likely faced conditions never experienced before, it’s important to have a plan in place for fertility testing bulls and pregnancy checking females, Wunderlich advises.
“We are going to make a big push on our producers to really pay attention to their cows and bulls,” Wunderlich says. “It’s very important to fertility test bulls, especially if they are a single-sire herd, to make sure that bull is ready to do his job.”
If producers haven’t turned out bulls yet, they should schedule time with their veterinarians for a thorough breeding soundness exam. Heat stress in the late summer has been known to cause fertility issues in bulls, Wunderlich explains, with many marginal fertility tests taking place in August and September. Cold stress and exposure to single-digit temperatures could likely have the same effect.
If bulls are already turned out, make sure pregnancy testing is top of mind.
“The more cows that you have raise a calf, the more profitable you are,” Wunderlich says. “Consult your local veterinarian and pregnancy check those cows. If you have a low pregnancy rate in a herd or pasture, try to sort out why. Is it because cows are thin? Did we have a reproductive disease go through the herd? Do we need to work on our trace mineral program?”
3. Evaluate parasite control.
Pastures might require extra time to build-back this year, Wunderlich notes, and because of that, parasites could become a larger issue. Shorter grass can lead to lower grazing and increased uptake of parasite larvae.
He recommends producers take a second look at their deworming programs and consider running fecal egg counts to determine parasite levels. This can be done before and after dewormers are administered. Measuring the program’s efficacy is key, Wunderlich says, and will lead to more productive cows and calves.
“By keeping parasites out of those cattle in the spring, you’re making the most of forage,” Wunderlich says. “We are feeding the animal and the species, not the parasites in the belly.”
Proper fly control is also an important consideration. A number of treatments are available, depending on the region and fly species.
“Some flies, like horn flies, are pretty well controlled with our topical parasiticides — low-volume pour-ons,” Wunderlich says. “You can also add fly ear tags. In our part of the country, those need to be on by May to really make a difference in the fly season.”
Feeding an insect growth regulator is also effective, whether that is in the mineral tub, in a loose mineral or served in a concentrated ration. He adds that rotating classes of chemicals from one year to another is a balanced management strategy.
“We have many products that last multiple weeks, depending on the type of chemical concentration and the compound itself,” says Wunderlich, emphasizing it is important to find the best solution for the herd — and a producers’ budget.
Sometimes, all the right practices are in place and flies are still present.
“When we think about animal density, if we are looking at small acres, what are our neighbors doing?” Wunderlich says. “If we’re doing everything we can on our place, zero flies sometimes aren’t achievable because maybe neighbors are fighting flies, too.”
4. Understand disease risks.
It’s no surprise cattle experiencing nutritional or environmental stress are more susceptible to disease. A solid vaccination program, tailored to the region, remains a central pillar to overall herd health, Wunderlich says.
“We can’t forget about basic Clostridial vaccines or reproductive diseases,” he says. “If we get those cows pregnant, let’s keep them pregnant. And we see more Clostridial disease in the extremes, so it is not going to be uncommon for us to see an increase in those incidences.”
Clostridials such as “blackleg” or “redwater” are common in south central Texas because of the amount of moisture, Wunderlich explains. The bacteria’s spores are housed within the soil, ready to be picked up by cattle when they are grazing and foraging. The spores remain dormant in the animal until conditions are right for them to grow.
Cows and calves that weathered the February storm may have an increased likelihood for respiratory disease in the future, too.
“When we see 30- to 40-degree temperature swings, we see a higher incidence of respiratory diseases in our suckling calves and weaned calves,” Wunderlich says. “So be on the lookout for increased incidence of pneumonia in calves that are nursing and during their transition to weaning in early autumn.”
5. Stay in contact.
A solid relationship with a veterinarian may be one of the highest returns on investment for the ranch, Wunderlich says. If there’s one additional calf born each year or money saved on using products more efficiently, it can be a significant impact for herds of all sizes.
Communicating regularly with a veterinarian allows producers to determine whether or not a program is working, and identify areas of improvement.
“As a herd health veterinarian, the most profitable thing I could do for producers is, if they do experience losses, try to diagnose those,” Wunderlich says. “If we can figure out why an animal didn’t make it to its target production — whether that be weaned at the local sale barn, finished at the feedyard or a cow having a calf — then we can try to help that producer prevent that from happening again.”
A veterinary-client-patient relationship, coupled with a solid herd health management plan, makes all the difference — in good times, and bad.
“A healthy calf starts with a healthy cow and bull,” Wunderlich says. “Then we optimize their genetic potential by making sure that their nutrition is right, parasites are eliminated and all the other components of herd health are addressed.”
This story originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of The Cattleman magazine, Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association’s flagship publication. Join today to start your subscription.