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Improving the health status of beef herds

on .

Michael Fitzgerald, Teagasc Drystock Advisor

To date, 2013 has proven a difficult year in terms of disease problems on cattle farms. The poor quality fodder that resulted from the adverse weather conditions in 2012 meant that cattle in general and suckler cows in particular were in poor condition at the end of the winter. The late spring meant that cattle were retained indoors for longer than usual and this led to a build up of infection in the sheds. Also we have experienced very changeable weather this spring and this has meant that there has been added stress on young animals.

There is evidence of reduced usage of vaccines this year. This is a worrying trend as it will lead to further problems later on. Farmers operating suckler herds have become increasingly conscious of the cost of vaccinations and treatments. What guidelines can we offer to farmers in terms of reducing the problems in their herds?

Suckler Herds And Calf Rearing

In terms of herd health compact calving has much to offer. It enables vaccines to be administered at the correct time. It also avoids the situation where calves of different ages are mixed which leads to younger calves being exposed to infection from older calves.

In the case of pneumonia many farmers are vaccinating for RSV, PI3 and IBR which are the main causes of viral pneumonia. In the case of RSV and PI3 a booster dose needs to be given. In severe cases of IBR a booster dose may be needed from three months on and cows may also need to be vaccinated. Corona virus is another cause of pneumonia that has emerged in recent years and to date there is no vaccine available.

The Suckler Welfare Scheme that finished at the end of 2012 was of great benefit in reducing the incidence of respiratory problems in weanlings with an improvement in the practices at weaning time reducing the stress levels in animals. It is important that we continue to put an emphasis on good husbandry at that time of the year to prevent problems arising.

Many farmers are also vaccinating cows against scour. Knowing your calving dates will enable you to determine when to give vaccines and this is assisted by accurate pregnancy diagnosis. Ensuring that the new born calf has a clean environment is essential. It is important to know what pathogens are involved in an outbreak of calf scour. Faecal sampling a number of scouring calves before treatment is important to identify the cause. This year Cryptosporidia has become more prevalent. It usually occurs in young calves. Coccidiosis is another problem that arises in calves and is usually associated with animals using the same area each year and where animals are kept in close proximity to each other. Where you have a situation that cows and calves can be turned to grass quickly after calving the problems with Coccidiosis can be reduced.

With the expansion in the dairy herd more people are rearing calves from this source. The problems encountered in the suckler herd are similar to those where calf-rearing takes place and the same principles apply. Adequate colostrum is essential for all calves and when sourcing calves from dairy herds try to ensure that you have some information on the vaccinations received by the cow and the amount of biestings given.

Parasite Control

The wet weather of recent years has increased the problems associated with parasites. Liver fluke in particular has become an issue. Different drugs are effective at different stages which means that in some situations a complete kill may not be achieved. It is further complicated by the fact that rumen fluke has also become a problem since 2009-2010. Further investigation is required to ascertain its economic significance. There is no anthelmintic that is effective against both rumen fluke and all stages of liver fluke. Liver fluke is the more important in terms of reducing thrive. Some meat factories have started to give feedback on the presence of live liver fluke at the time of slaughter. This is a welcome development. Faecal sampling for parasites is a practice that needs to be encouraged on farms especially those with a history of liver fluke problems. It is no longer being carried out by the regional veterinary laboratories and is being done by a number of private laboratories throughout the country. There is a need to change the way that we approach the control of parasites with the aim being to avoid unnecessary dosing and to ensure that the correct anthelmintic is used.


The three-year compulsory testing for BVD will help to reduce the incidence of the disease and it is possible to eradicate it as has been proven in other countries. Given that the effect of BVD is to reduce the immune status of animals this should lead to a decrease in the incidence of other diseases. Many herds are vaccinating against BVD at present and we await guidance from the professionals on the necessity to continue this practice.

Clostridial Diseases

Vaccination for blackleg and other clostridial diseases and the administration of subsequent booster doses has been a traditional practice on many farms. Every year I receive reports of farms where vaccination hasn’t taken place and where outbreaks occur. Given the low cost involved the advice is that all farms should vaccinate. Veterinary advice should be sought as to the necessity to vaccinate for the various clostridial diseases other than blackleg.

Closed Herd Health Policy

Farmers who operate a closed herd policy will invariably have less problems. Apart form the costs associated with vaccinating and treating clinical cases there are the economic losses involved in mortality and the disposal costs of dead animals. Combined with this is the extra work and stress associated with treating sick animals. The best advice that I can give is to assess your current practices to see where improvements can be made.

Breeding season and calving pattern – Can improvements be made in this regard? Be ruthless by putting a definite starting and finishing date on the breeding season and ensure that you have adequate replacements to counteract any cows that may have to be culled.

Housing and hygiene – Have you adequate housing for animals especially post-calving? Providing a clean lying area for calves is essential. Good ventilation is essential also and sheds may need to be adapted to improve this.

Have a herd health plan – Having a herd health plan is one of the tasks on the Beef Technology Adoption Programme (BTAP) and is something that I would recommend on all livestock farms. It means sitting down with your veterinary practitioner and outlining the procedures that need to be carried out on the farm during the year to prevent disease and to control parasites at the correct stage. This is a valuable exercise and will inevitably mean paying your vet for the time involved and expertise available but it is money well spent.

Make use of faecal sampling to ensure that you are controlling parasites properly and in the case of losses be prepared to bring carcasses or samples to the regional veterinary laboratories for accurate diagnosis of the causes. Problems will arise on every livestock farm but the aim must be to try to prevent them recurring and this inevitably means making changes to how you operate.