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Protecting the calf crop depends on health inputs

Clifford Mitchell Published on 01 July 2011
Cows in pasture

Most operations have some sort of herd health program. Every outfit lays a claim to shot-giving, pour-on strategies or a program that takes in the big picture of complete herd health.

Unfortunately, some programs rely on tradition rather than consulting the herd veterinarian for the proper vaccination schedule.

Most management tools are dependent on environment and, unfortunately, herd health is no different.

Basic principles are probably the same for most operations, except certain health threats have to be addressed in particular environments.

Protocols may differ from region to region, but successful programs rely on more than running cows through the chute.

“There is a lot more to the immune system than a vaccination, and herd health boils down to more than just giving shots,” says Mike Hall, beef cattle specialist at Cal Poly State University.

“Good nutrition, monitoring body condition scores (BCS) and proper mineral supplementation is critical to herd health.”

“A lot of factors figure into successful herd health. There is a diligent chain of events that have to happen to maintain herd health,” says Dr. Justin Rhinehart, extension beef specialist at the University of Tennessee.

Marketing healthy calves is the goal of most operations. The more research pharmaceutical companies and academia do, the more producers learn healthy cows produce healthy calves.

“It starts with the cow before she calves. She will transfer immunity to her calf based on the quality of her colostrum,” Rhinehart says.

“A good start will allow that calf to express genetics. How that cow is treated during her last trimester will affect how that calf performs and responds to vaccinations.”

“Producers have to adhere to many different steps, but a good herd health program starts with the cow,” Hall says. “Building up a calf’s immune system starts with colostrum and continues through proper nutrition.”

Timeliness of vaccinations is always on the mind of most producers. Many outside influences have dibs or come first for some producers, and the cow herd suffers.

Working in a timely manner with the available labor force is something producers will have to keep continually adjusting so cows can benefit from the vaccination program.

“Herd health has to fit into your management program,” Hall says. “Time and labor are very important and we can’t afford to re-do our steps.

To prime the immune system, we can’t delay some of these boosters. With current time constraints and our labor force, it is challenging to give vaccines enough time to work.”

“In our area, getting producers, who have a second job, to give timely vaccinations is a challenge. The lack of a qualified workforce also is hard in some areas,” Rhinehart says.

“Find qualified help that know how to handle cattle, because vaccines will be more effective with less stress.”

Pre-breeding vaccinations are often overlooked by most outfits. These vaccinations need to be performed in a small window of time, which for some is more hassle than good management.

Good herd health combined with proper nutrition will go a long way to secure profit.

“The number most operations are looking at today is pounds of weaned calf per cow exposed. Pre-breeding boosters have an effect on a lot of things like calf vigor, breedback and weaning rate,”

Rhinehart says. “You have to be timely to establish immunity before you start breeding season. We have to get as many cows bred back to calve as early as we can, and a sound herd health program will greatly influence these numbers.”

“Pre-breeding shots protect cows against some reproductive diseases and provide some pass-on immunity to the calves,” Hall says.

“To maintain a 365-day calving interval, a cow needs to breed back in 80 days. Producers are working with a very short time period and we have to do all we can to make sure cows breed back.”

Passing immunity for things like respiratory disease is definitely important for the calf crop. Reproductive diseases can decimate a cow herd.

One “train wreck,” as most in the business will call it, could destroy the operation. Good biosecurity or responsible buying could stand guard for most herds.

“We have to do everything we can to keep the immune system primed against reproductive diseases. With calf prices today, there is a tremendous economic impact if you can’t get cows to calve,” Hall says.

“Biosecurity is becoming more important. Know your seedstock supplier and make sure bulls are tested for things like BVD and trich and have a breeding soundness exam.

It is definitely cheaper to buy replacements, but the big disadvantage is you don’t know health history unless you have a relationship with your supplier.”

“Pre-plan and don’t be forced into buying a bull from people you normally wouldn’t do business with.

Sometimes producers buy bulls at the wrong place. Make an investment in the right genetic package that comes with a clean bill of health,” Rhinehart says.

“Biosecurity is really important. There are a lot of good tools to select replacements. Make sure those females are familiar with your environment, the health challenges and have a solid health background.”

Healthy females that have been properly fed are an asset to any pasture; however, it is especially critical to the replacement heifers. Molding females to be “good earners” starts at a young age and will set up each generation to pay their way.

“Properly immunized heifers that have been on a good nutrition program should breed up in a timely fashion.

Calving these females at two, three weeks ahead of the cow herd increases her chances for breedback,” Rhinehart says.

“If producers take care of those first-calf heifers, the better chance they have to breed back early for their second calf. With calf prices today, calving early in the season affects lifetime productivity of those females.”

“We have to do everything we can to get replacements to calve at 2 and early in the calving season,” Hall says.

“We can increase our revenue if we can do a better job of management and get more cows bred to calve early.”

Record input costs and high calf prices may somewhat deter producers from profit. Use all resources available and blend this with sound management to enhance the bottom line.

Sound herd health follows calves all the way to the rail or replacement pen. Cattle feeders or buyers are looking for performance, and herd health will often lead to total performers.

“With the value of our calves today, it is critical we show the buyer we have done everything we can to protect those calves.

A good vaccination program does not cost that much in today’s market,” Hall says. “Most are concerned with getting feedback on genetics.

Maybe you should ask your buyer if they stayed out of the sick pen. If they aren’t, something’s wrong and it’s time to make a change in the health program.”  end_mark


Source your replacement heifers and be comfortable with who you are doing business with. The disadvantage to buying replacements is unknown genetic and health background. Good biosecurity practices and some careful testing will make sure producers do not bring unwanted health risk to the herd. Photo by Paul Marchant.