Beyond the marketing, there’s science.
And real cattle men and women who have felt the pain.
By Katrina Huffstutler
Sixteen years ago, Jerry Bob Daniel had never heard of trichomoniasis. Today, the cattleman, who runs Circle Bar Ranch in Truscott, could write a book.
His first experience with the costly disease was in 2002, after purchasing some cows through an auction market. His veterinarian at the time, Dr. Thomas Hairgrove, came out to palpate them and had less than impressive results.
At that time, Daniel, who now serves as chair of Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association’s Cattle Health and Well-Being committee, was running about 1,200 cows and consistently getting a 92- to 94- percent breed up. But these cows were about 78 percent bred, and many of those were late bred, due to aborting and rebreeding. It was alarming, so he asked Hairgrove for his thoughts.
“He said, ‘Well, have you tested for trich?’ and, of course, I had never even heard of trich, much less tested for it,” Daniel says.
And so, they did. Hairgrove’s concerns were validated when six bulls came back positive.
A learning experience
“That is when the education really began,” Daniel says. “Up until that time, we did not identify where the bulls came from. We did not have IDs on our individual bulls, but even if we had, we would not have known which pasture they came from.”
He sold those positive bulls, of course, plus the open cows. A year later, they sold the entire herd. That one incident cost Daniel roughly $45,000. But it also inspired him to make some big changes in his operation. Not only would he add a trichomoniasis element to his herd health plan, but he would get serious about identifying and tracking the activity of each of his bulls.
It worked. In 2005, when a bull got out and returned with trich, he was the only loss. Still, Daniel worked to improve his protocol, incorporating twice-yearly trich tests.
A false sense of security
After a few years of having no bulls test positive, Daniel admits that he was feeling pretty good about things. Maybe a little too good, since he decided to suspend the twice-yearly tests when the historic drought hit a few years later.
“Times were getting tough with the drought, and I felt like I was wasting my money,” Daniel explains.
But in 2011, when he had his cows preg-checked, only about 82 percent were bred. He chalked it up to the drought.
“It was the worst drought of my lifetime and I thought, well, that’s why they didn’t breed,” Daniel says. “That was my mistake.”
Prior to turning his bulls out the following spring, he decided to test, just to be sure. Ten bulls came back hot, tracing back to a neighbor’s bull getting in. This incident cost a lot more, though, with 200 cows during an upswing in the market.
Daniel says it cost him $250,000 in losses.
“It was especially tough because bull prices had gotten so high,” Daniel says. “In 2002, we were paying $3,500 for a top bull, but in 2011 they were worth $6,000 to $8,000.”
The Circle Bar had trich two more times after that — once after loaning a bull out (since he tested him before bringing him back, only that bull was lost) and another time during rapid expansion when new cows were introduced. Each time, lessons have been learned and new details have been added to the protocol. Daniel knows it is not perfect, but it is getting there. The main thing, he says, is staying attentive.
Good fences make good neighbors
TSCRA Director Dr. Lewis “Bud” Dinges, who is also a veterinarian for Boehringer Ingelheim, says he has heard many stories like Daniel’s. And it is no surprise, considering that the prevalence of trichomoniasis costs cattle owners more than $1 billion per year in lost calf revenue.
But the disease costs ranchers a lot more.
“It’s a domino effect,” Dinges says. “First, you have decreased pregnancy rates, leading to a decreased calf crop. In herds that have an extended breeding season (more than 120 days), you will see increased calving intervals, which leads to lighter weaning weights. And then there is the cost associated with managing cattle that were exposed to the disease.”
While there is no silver bullet when it comes to trich, Dinges says that there are steps every producer can take to minimize their risk. As with any herd health program, it should start with a discussion with their veterinarian, who can help customize a plan that works best for the specific operation.
Dinges says biosecurity and surveillance can go a long way.
“Good fences make good neighbors,” he says, adding that the two times he had trich in his own herd in the early 2000s, it was due to a neighbor’s bulls getting in with his.
This was long before the Texas Bovine Trichomoniasis Control Program existed and dictated the testing of adjacent herds, but even now, he stresses the importance of regularly checking fences and having a solid biosecurity system in place.
“If your cows get in with the neighbors’ or vice versa, keep those cows isolated at least until their pregnancy status is known and preferably until they deliver a live calf,” he says.
Dinges says it is important to always keep the pregnant carrier status in mind because, while rare, a cow can have a live calf and then shed the organism in the next breeding season.
Circle Bar Ranch Trichomoniasis Prevention Program
- Identify bulls by brand and ear tag (ear tags can be lost).
- Record bull placement/location for breeding season with identification.
- Record bull removal/location after breeding season with identification.
- Test annually, preferably in the fall after gathering.
- Limit each breeding season to six months or less. (Pastures must be cleared of all bulls.)
- Remove all stray bulls within two days and test them before returning them home.
- Isolate all the cows returned from a neighbor during the breeding season. Only one bull should be placed with them for the remainder of the breeding season. Then test that bull at the end of the season. This will reduce the risk to the entire herd (two negative tests required).
- Isolate and obtain two negative tests for all bulls returned home from a neighbor, whether during breeding or non-breeding season.
- Sell for slaughter all bulls and cows nine years old or older that return from a neighboring ranch.
Circle Bar Ranch Trichomoniasis Eradication Program
- Test bulls until two negative tests are accomplished.
- Isolate open cows and prevent exposure to bulls for 120 days.
- Sell all open cows eight years old or older for slaughter.
- Obtain additional negative tests (three total) on the bulls used to breed the open cows that were retained for breeding.
Editor’s note: This protocol used by the Circle Bar Ranch is just one example of many that might work for your herd. Always consult with your own veterinarian before developing a program to prevent, control or eradicate trichomoniasis or any disease.
“Do not assume that a cow is OK just because she is four or five months pregnant,” he says. “You need to test your bulls again after the next breeding season and then get rid of cows that don’t calve.”
The same advice goes for newly purchased cattle, he says.
“You want to keep all new cattle quarantined until you are sure they do not pose a risk to your existing herd,” Dinges says.
The veterinarian also recommends keeping good records and having multiple forms of identification for each bull. For some cattle owners, incorporating a trichomoniasis vaccine into their protocol will also be beneficial.
“If you are in a high-risk area, I would strongly recommend vaccinating against trich,” Dinges says. “That will help reduce the shedding of T. foetus organisms, thereby helping to reduce the spread of infection throughout the herd.”
The biggest piece of advice Dinges offers producers? Do not become complacent. And do not test just once. Two, or three, times is always better.
“A lot of people think that since Texas has this trich control program, we are safe from the disease,” he says. “But there is still a lot of trich out there.”
After five incidences and more than $300,000 in losses, it is a fact Daniel knows well. But he also knows he is doing his best to keep it out. He also knows that, at the moment, his herd is trich-free.
“I know I have gotten rid of it five times and I have had this question posed to me: ‘How do you know?’ And I say that my best evidence is a 94 percent calf crop,” Daniel says. “You can’t have a 94 percent calf crop and have trich.”
Trich in the Real World is excerpted from the October 2018 issue of The Cattleman magazine.
Please take a second to visit our Bull Buyer’s Guide and Ranch Services Guide Advertisers.