Four parts to fostering herd health


Four parts to fostering herd health

Sep 01, 2007

Disease prevention in beef herds is essential if a producer wants to be profitable. Most diseases, once we finally see them, have been smoldering in a herd for months and have been eating potential income. Avoidance is crucial because many common diseases have no treatment.

Producers often ask veterinarians for suggestions on herd-health programs. In most cases, the client really is asking, "What vaccination program do I need?"

But good herd health involves much more than vaccines. I break down herd-health programs into four parts — nutrition, deworming, vaccinations and biosecurity — that play a role in keeping cattle healthy and preventing diseases. We know this as veterinarians. But it's critical that producers understand that herd health requires efforts in more than one area.

Herd-health programs should not be dispensed via telephone or from the clinic. They should be tailored to the individual ranch, and that requires a visit to see things firsthand. Producers might want a one-size-fits-all program, but these do not exist.


Adequate nutrition is the cornerstone of good herd-health management. Without it, there is no herd health. If producers only remember one thing, that should be it. If nutrition is optimized, health and production will be, too.

Great expense isn't necessary, but adequate protein, energy, vitamins, minerals and clean water are essential. Obviously, a hurdle like a drought makes nutrition a challenge. But if nutrition is not optimized, diseases and production losses will be a problem. Poor nutrition depresses immunity to diseases and interferes with response to vaccination. What appears to be an outbreak of weak calves, pneumonia, footrot or infertility might actually be poor nutrition. We can find, eliminate and vaccinate for a disease, but if we don't fix the nutrition problems, other diseases will move in. Stop wasting time, effort and money chasing one disease after another. Producers need to know how to fix their nutritional problems first.


Parasite infestations, whether from gastrointestinal worms or liver flukes, cause significant losses in beef herds. They rob calves of weight gain and cause infertility and poor milk production in cows.

But we sometimes forget that parasitism also mimics poor nutrition. By robbing an animal of protein and other nutrients, parasites effectively lower immunity to diseases and decrease responses to vaccines. A sound parasite control program is a must for good overall herd health.


Yet some diseases can overwhelm an animal's immunity and cause losses even in well-fed, dewormed herds.

This is where vaccination programs come into play. They allow us to boost immunity to specific diseases, providing extra protection.

Many producers think vaccines will protect their herd from all diseases, all the time. While vaccines are essential to a sound herd-health program, they will not solve all problems.


Vaccines won't bridge gaps in poor biosecurity practices.

When producers hear that term, most think of foreign infections such as foot-and-mouth disease. While preventing foreign-animal diseases from entering U.S. herds is vital, there are many diseases in this country that cost the beef industry billions of dollars each year. We need to keep these diseases out of our beef herds.

The bad news is that even a well-fed, dewormed and properly vaccinated herd still runs the risk of succumbing to a disease and suffering losses.

But those losses usually are much lower in the herd with decent management and good overall immunity compared to the herd with poor nutrition, parasites and an inferior vaccination program.

Yet many of diseases infiltrate herds before we know they are there.

It also makes no sense to attempt to eliminate a disease a producer already has if they are not going to prevent its reoccurrence.

Bovine viral diarrhea virus (BVDV) is a perfect example. With recent publicity highlighting this disease, veterinarians are fielding producer requests to test for and eliminate it. But producers often fail to realize that testing the right set of animals, such as calves, at the proper times is important.