How to Keep Your Beef Cattle Healthy
In part six of our “What’s Your Beef?” series on raising cattle on small farms, we look at some management items that you will want to pay attention to if you intend to keep your beef herd healthy and profitable.
As you read this issue, the golden days of autumn are with us; the warm sun, the awesome fall colors, and the birds heading south make for some enjoyable, memorable days. Winter will soon be upon us, and we will need to be able to adjust for different conditions as it relates to our cattle. Winter will offer us an opportunity to sit in our recliners and read up on different management strategies, of which health management is a major consideration in the ownership of beef cattle. Pests, parasites, and diseases are the main culprits affecting the health of beef cattle. Before we delve into the nuts and bolts of beef cattle health management, however, let’s take an overall look at management strategies that can help you maintain good health in your animals.
In general, beef cattle are healthy animals and don’t require too much extra attention to remain so. They tend to be outside much of the year, which contributes to their overall wellbeing. Animals that are inside, in crowded, damp, and dirty surroundings can easily pick up diseases more readily. As a rule, mature beef cows do not need too much shelter during the winter; my cows almost never go into the run-in addition I have on my barn. If you are calving in the colder months, then you will need your cows to have access to shelter. Smaller animals will need some shelter during the cold months, or at least have the option available. Keeping such shelters relatively clean is important too; nothing is more demoralizing to me than seeing animals wallowing in deep mud, muck, and manure.
A good nutrition program will keep your animals healthy as well. The animals need the right amount of grazing in the warmer months, and good quality forages for the non-grazing months. In a year such as 2021 it was extremely hard to make any good quality dry hay, and if that’s what you must feed, you may need to be supplement your hay to make up for the deficiencies.
Disease is a symptom of an underlying problem in our management system, yet often we treat the disease without addressing the cause. We don’t ask what caused an animal to suffer a particular outbreak or a worm infestation. Once we control the immediate problem, we tend to feel satisfied, when in reality we have addressed only the symptoms and not the underlying cause. Antibiotics and other drugs should only be used as a last resort to control diseases, pests, and parasites. To that end, you should have a working relationship with a bovine veterinarian. You will also need a safe, efficient place to restrain your animals; a headlock/squeeze chute is a must in handling large animals.
To address some specific skills that you will need I call upon information contained in the University of Maine Bulletin #1201, “Farmer Skill and Knowledge Checklist: Beef Production” and the “ATTRA Beef Farm Sustainability Checklist.”
Some necessary skills are:
- Understanding the importance of sanitation and biosecurity on your farm
- Knowing the components of a cattle health program, including a vaccination protocol
- Being familiar with common cattle diseases
- Being able to recognize a sick animal
- Knowing how to take an animal’s temperature
- Being able to calculate dosages of vaccines, dewormers, and antibiotics
- Selecting and using the correct size needles for use on calves and cattle
- Being able to properly draw a vaccine or other injectable from a vial into a syringe
- Being able to give subcutaneous (sub-Q) injections. An excellent opportunity to learn how to do so is at one of the many Beef BQA (Beef Quality Assurance) programs sponsored by the New York Beef Producers Association.
- Properly disposing of needles
- Recognizing signs of internal parasites
- Selecting a proper dewormer for cattle
- Administering an oral dewormer
- Recognizing signs of external parasites
- Selecting and applying a pour-on material for external parasite control
- Differentiating antibiotics used for beef cattle
- Scheduling pregnancy checks for your cattle
- Having a defined breeding season
- Knowing how to condition score cows
- Having handling facilities which minimize stress and danger to animals and handlers
- Using handling techniques that minimize stress (Temple Grandin’s books will show you how to do this)
- Knowing how to deal with calving problems, especially having to pull a calf at birth
- Recognizing the signs of, and cures, for pinkeye in cattle
An excellent reference is “The Cattle Health Handbook: Preventive Care, Disease Treatments & Emergency Procedures” by Heather Smith Thomas, available from many online retailers.
Rich Taber is Grazing, Forestry, and Livestock Specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chenango County. He lives with his wife Wendy on their farm in nearby Madison County where they have a beef cow/calf herd and a small herd of dairy heifers. They practice rotational grazing, and manage their farm and woodlot using the principles of regenerative agriculture and forestry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.