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Beef Herd Health Visits

The best form of treatment for a beef herd is preventative medicine and that really is what herd health visits are all about. I will go over the basic things covered by most veterinarians and indicate how these fit into most schemes followed by cow-calf managers. The time frame revolves around a typical Alberta spring-calving cow herd. If you calve at other times of the year such as the fall just adjust the time frames accordingly.

Most visits, and there may be several in a year, coincide with seasonal routine work performed by veterinarians. That way the herd is also checked over and any pressing individual medical or surgical cases are looked after at the same time. This is also a good time for a producer to bring up questions about individual animals or concerns, as he/she has the vet’s undivided attention. It is also a time to plan for the future and discuss new developments.

Since reproduction has been proven time and again to be the most important parameter for profitability in the beef operation, it is surely one veterinarians concentrate on. The fall herd visit is typically focused on pregnancy checking the entire cow herd. At the same time body condition score is assessed and nutrition discussed.

The rate of open cows in a herd usually falls somewhere between five and 10 per cent. When it goes above 10 per cent reproductive problems need to be investigated and diagnosed. Getting cows pregnant is the key to profitability and late-bred cows may be found open the subsequent year.

Besides condition scoring cows during this fall the veterinarian will visually assess the females for any developing problems such as early cancer eye, lump jaw, lameness, Johne’s disease and the list goes on and on. If any herd-health blood testing is necessary for problems like Johne’s, bovine leukosis or BVD, it is best done at the fall preg check.

Nutritional skills are quite variable within the veterinary profession; some seem comfortable with it and others refer to a licensed nutritionist to complete the herd-health team.

Vaccinations are a large part of preventative medicine, really a form of on-farm biosecurity, and constantly upgraded as better products are developed. A few common vaccinations will be pretty much constant across Western and Eastern Canada. These are supplemented by vaccinations suited to specifi regions. In some cases individual farms require a custom-designed vaccination protocol. We think of scours vaccinations and vaccinating for reproductive diseases in the breeding cows as a standard. Updating for the clostridial diseases should also be considered, especially in areas where clostridium hemolyticum has been diagnosed.

Spring concerns

The early-spring visit on most operations coincides with preparations for calving and discussions revolving around calving procedures, prevention of sickness in the calves and good colostrum management. Calving is the time when calf mortality is highest for the year and most of these losses are preventable. Extra diligence then is sure to return benefits to a producer. One would think the status quo might be good enough but veterinarians are always in a position to discuss new developments on these herd visits. As an example recently new scour vaccines and treatments are available and their potential merits need to be conveyed to the producer. The only constant in the cow-calf sector is change.

The pre-breeding visit centres around the examination for fertility the breeding bulls. Fertility checks concentrate on semen evaluation and each bull’s overall ability to breed. Genetic consultation fits in here. The bull is the other half of the equation and bulls should be checked at least yearly along with any new additions. It is also extremely important to assess the bull’s ability to breed on the first one or two cows he is exposed to each year. After that a myriad of problems such as a broken or cut penis once the bull is out with the herd. Since he supplies half the genetics to your herd his reproductive function is critical and your veterinarian knows that.

The late summer and early fall involve establishing a vaccination protocol for the calves. This is where past history is critical. A treatment protocol for pneumonias and other calfhood diseases is also reviewed at this time. Most clinics have flow sheets outlining their recommended vaccination and treatment suggestions for their area. These may be modified slightly from farm to farm but the basics always remain the same.

Throughout the rest of the year veterinary visits revolve around routine things such as castrations, dehorning and regulatory testing. Autopsies are a most vital component of any herd health program. They not only reveal cause of death so the health of the rest of the herd can be protected. Was the death preventable with vaccination, treatment or a change in management? A skilled veterinarian can quickly do a post mortem, as there is no second-guessing the proof right in front of your eyes.

Testing for BSE have given cow-calf producers an extra opportunity to utilize their veterinarians. Autopsies on mature cows are something we did not have much opportunity to do before and other herd health procedures can be undertaken at the same time. Consider the autopsy as a window into the overall health of your herd. Whether it is a parasite burden or vitamin mineral deficiency there is a huge opportunity to better the herd’s health if the need arises.

Production practices are always changing and in the past few years we have interwoven these into the health visits, offering advice and consultation regarding such things as water management, instituting practical biosecurity measures, surviving a drought, implementing the CCIA tagging program, age verification and ageing cattle with dentition are all new herd health services that were not even considered a few years ago.

The upshot of a herd health program is a good working routine with your veterinarian focused around routine visits at the appropriate times of the year. Emergencies will still occur albeit much more infrequently, and the herd will be much healthier as a result.

— Dr. Roy Lewis, DVM

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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