Dr. Michelle Arnold, UK Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
We have all heard this phrase, often attributed to Albert Einstein, and it certainly applies when it comes to the health and care of cattle. If you want to improve health and prevent as many problems as possible, think of adopting one or more of the following resolutions.
In 2022, I resolve to . . .
- Improve the water the cattle drink: Water is the cheapest and most readily available nutrient but it is often the most overlooked. Consumption varies with age, breed, temperature and humidity, stage of pregnancy or lactation, and level of production but can reach as high as 25-30 gallons per day during hot weather. Generally, cattle health problems are seldom directly due to what is in the water but rather the decrease in water consumption because of the poor taste and odor. Decreased consumption is just as harmful as not having enough water available. When cattle do not drink enough, feed intake and milk production drop, heat stress worsens, and overall immunity suffers. If cattle are allowed to stand in water sources such as ponds, fecal and urine contamination will decrease water quality and certain diseases (for example, leptospirosis) will spread through contaminated water.
- Check the mineral feeder regularly and keep trace mineral in front of the cattle at all times: This resolution can be challenging, especially in those times when the cattle seem to eat it as fast as it is put out. The keys to using a free-choice trace mineral product are to ensure cattle have access to mineral 100% of the time, use a palatable, quality product and make sure they are consuming it at the expected level. Remember a 50-pound bag of mineral to be fed at 4 ounces per head per day will only last 4 days in a 50 cow herd. If the cows have calves that also eat mineral, a bag may only last 3 days. If cattle are consuming too much mineral, try moving the feeder farther from the water source or mixing in loose salt to slow the consumption rate. Mineral feeders should not be allowed to be empty for long or cattle will overeat salt or mineral when it is offered again. Provide adequate access for cows and calves, for example 1 mineral feeder per 15 cow/calf pairs. Do not offer additional loose salt, salt blocks, or sources of salt at the same time. Trace minerals, especially copper and selenium, are often far below acceptable levels in cattle without supplementation. The absence of these vital nutrients is a major factor in development of disease. Additionally, grass tetany/hypomagnesemia cases will occur in late winter and early spring if lactating beef cattle are not offered a free-choice, high magnesium trace mineral during that period of time.
- Test my hay before winter and figure out if I need to buy supplemental feed: If hay quality is poor, for example if cut very ripe (late stage of maturity), rained on while curing, and/or baled with enough moisture to support mold growth, supplementing cattle with adequate energy and protein sources will likely be required to meet their basic nutritional needs until grass if available again. Many cows and calves presented for necropsy (an animal “autopsy”) in late winter reveal a total absence of fat and death is due to starvation. This indicates that the hay feeding program did not provide the necessary nutrition for winter weather survival. It is often difficult for producers to realize that cattle can actually starve to death while consuming all the hay they can eat – especially if crude protein levels are in the 3-4% range, and TDN (energy) is <40% – as is common in some late-cut, overmature, rained-on hay. Many producers purchase “protein tubs” varying from 16-30% protein to make up for any potential protein deficiencies but fail to address the severe lack of energy in the diet.
- Keep my cows from losing weight, especially while pregnant: Learn to body condition score cows so you will know where on the cow to look for signs of early weight loss. Inadequate nutrition severely affects the developing fetus in a pregnant cow. “Fetal programming” of the immune system of the developing calf during pregnancy will not progress correctly without sufficient nutrients and trace minerals. A weak cow may experience dystocia (a slow, difficult birth) resulting in lack of oxygen to the calf during delivery, leading to a dead or weak calf. Calves born to deficient dams have less “brown fat” so they are less able to generate body heat and are slower to stand and nurse compared to calves whose dams received adequate nutrition during the last 100 days of pregnancy. Poor colostrum quality and quantity from protein and energy-deficient dams will not support calf survival and performance. Thin cows will be the last ones to rebreed.
- Work with a veterinarian to examine my herd vaccination program: Cattle herds are unique entities with different risks for disease on every farm so working with a veterinarian is your best bet to finding the right vaccines for the herd. The question of whether to use modified live or killed vaccine in adult cows is not an easy one to answer. Modified live vaccines (MLVs) offer better and more effective pregnancy protection but can impact conception rates if given too close to breeding season. In addition, MLV vaccines can cause abortions if given to pregnant cattle without strict adherence to label directions. Killed vaccines, on the other hand, are safer but are not nearly as effective at preventing infection. Another option is to administer two doses of MLV vaccine to open heifers (at weaning and a second dose 6 weeks prior to breeding) with annual revaccination using a killed vaccine. This combination stimulates excellent protection without the risk of MLVs although this protective response will diminish after several years.
- Improve biosecurity: Purchasing bulls, cows, or calves, and bringing them home to the farm is likely the single most dangerous time for introduction of new diseases into a herd. Even show animals returning to the farm from events should be isolated to prevent introduction of disease when they re-enter the herd. Any newly purchased animals should be isolated either off the farm or in a well-segregated area for at least 2 weeks (3-4 weeks is better) and observed for any signs of illness. During the period of isolation, a veterinarian should be consulted to appropriately test and vaccinate new arrivals. The best practice is to purchase animals from herds of known health status that will provide a vaccination and health history. Introduction of an animal with a disease such as Johne’s or a BVD persistently infected (PI) animal could have devastating, long-term effects on the health of the cow herd.
- Be better prepared to handle problems during labor and delivery: Checking on cows and heifers close to calving allows early detection of difficulty and intervention if needed during calving. If a cow or heifer is in active labor for 1-1.5 hours and making no progress, calving intervention is indicated. Assist or call for assistance with calving as early as possible, especially with heifers. Make sure calves start nursing after calving, keeping in mind that calves should stand within 30 minutes of delivery and nurse within 30 minutes of standing. If in doubt that the calf will be able to stand and nurse within an hour, make sure the calf is warm and then feed a good quality colostrum replacer, at least 1-2 quarts, within an hour of birth and again before 6 hours old.
- Improve my forages: It is often said that beef producers need to think of themselves as grass farmers because they sell pounds of calf produced by a cow that eats grass and makes milk. The UK Forages website: http://forages.ca.uky.edu/ is full of easy-to-find, useful information to make pastures more productive. Check out their instructional videos at https://www.youtube.com/c/KYForages
- Keep better records: It is hard to make well-informed decisions without information. At the very least, every animal should have a readable ID tag and calving dates should be recorded. Other parameters such as calf birth and weaning weights, sex, and dam information help differentiate the poor performing cows from the great ones. Vaccination records should include date administered, vaccine name, lot and serial numbers and expiration dates at a minimum.
- Listen to a trusted source for information and stop believing everything you read on Dr. Google: This is true in much more than beef cattle production. There is a lot of misinformation available and discernment is becoming a lost art. Veterinarians, Extension agents, and University Extension specialists, among others, can help answer or point you in the right direction when it comes to questions about the health and care of cattle.
Hope you have a prosperous 2022.