Practical Ways to Reduce Disease Challenges

By Kasey Brown   |  

“I’m not going to answer a lot of questions today, but I will leave you with better questions,” began Robin Faulkner as part of the 26th Cattlemen’s College, hosted in conjunction with the Cattle Industry Convention & NCBA Trade Show in New Orleans, La. The Zoetis cattle and equine technical services veterinarian urged cattlemen to think through their management systems to be a “producer cattleman instead of a consumer cattleman.”

The dogma of an animal health program is that it’s often thought of as a calendarized list of products and services. Just because many people believe something doesn’t make it right. It just makes it popularly wrong, advised Faulkner. An animal health program is built on a foundation of managing exposures to potential pathogens and accessing premium markets.

He likened an animal health program to a fence. A fence needs a corner post and four strands of wire. If the fourth strand breaks, three strands aren’t going to do well keeping in cattle. However, if there was a fifth strand, then one broken strand still leaves a strong fence.

He calls vaccination that “fifth strand” of an animal health program and warns against letting products alone be a single strand. Don’t rely on vaccines or dewormers to fix problems if you don’t manage cattle properly. He says the corner post is biosecurity, and the other strands are biocontainment, enzootic stability and components of stress management like how, when and how much pathogen exposure.

Biosecurity is the “if” of pathogen exposure to external diseases, he said. This prevents movement of potential pathogens into your herd. Historic biosecurity included isolating new purchases for 30 days. However, there is also risk to your new purchase from pathogens in your current herd. Faulkner suggested talking with your veterinarian about things you should test for or ask about.

About 70% of disease movement is not through cattle, but by people accessing your property and taking those pathogens elsewhere.

Biocontainment is best thought of as internal biosecurity, Faulkner said. This is the movement of potential pathogens within and between groups in your herd. It’s also the what, when, how many and how much of pathogen exposure that already exists in your herd.

The goal, Faulkner explained, is to create an environment where a present or introduced pathogen causes no losses, creating endemic stability.

“To get endemic stability, we don’t ‘prevent’ exposure, we manage the timing and dose to prevent disease,” he said.

There can be, and often are, pathogens present within herds, but the disease itself is absent because the animals have been exposed enough to have an immunity to it. The exposure may create a “carrier” cow. Her colostral immunity is shared with the calf, giving it temporary protection. Then when the calf is exposed to the pathogen later, it has active immunity.

Good management will reduce pathogen exposure at the wrong times, like when cattle are excessively stressed at weaning or when they are commingled. Don’t introduce these stressors when pathogen load is high. Commingling can be one of these stressors, and don’t forget that commingling herds managed at different locations can produce extra pathogen exposure.

“Disease does not respect ownership or branding irons,” Faulkner said. “Think about when to expose bulls and cows to each other. Don’t do it when both have their job to do.”

Don’t add new disease pathogens to the mix when reproduction success is already on the line.

He didn’t give many answers, but wanted producers to think through when cattle immune systems are weakened by stress and how reducing those might be possible. Could you time vaccines differently?

“I don’t have an answer to prevent all disease, but have a strong fence,” he concluded.