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Focus on Health Assurance for the Cow Herd

August 29, 2016

Northern Plains cow-calf producers soon will begin weaning calves, and those producers are looking for the best way to keep their calf crop healthy.

Cow-calf producers can’t buy insurance to protect their cattle, but good livestock stewardship will go a long way toward making sure the animals stay in good health, according to Gerald Stokka, the North Dakota State University Extension Service’s veterinarian and livestock stewardship specialist.

“While the purchase of insurance products in the form of preventive vaccines can reduce the risk of specific diseases that may pose a threat to the herd, a complete health assurance plan can further reduce the risk for disease and losses associated with calf diarrhea, calf respiratory disease, reduced pregnancy and calving rates, fetal wastage and diseases associated with bacterial agents of the clostridium family,” Stokka says.

On average, the cost of health insurance, categorized as veterinary expenses on IRS schedule F, can be in the range of 3 to 7 percent of the total annual cost of maintaining a cow. If the total cost is $600, then 5 percent for veterinary expenses would be $30 for every cow, bull, replacement heifer and calf produced. That includes vaccinations, non-ultrasound pregnancy checking, bull semen evaluations and deworming.

Vaccines are more effective if they are part of an overall focus on herd health, Stokka says. That means managing the herd specifically toward the goal of good health. Here are four management areas he recommends producers focus on to formulate a health assurance plan on the ranch:

  • Genetic selection
  • Nutrition management
  • Stress management
  • Colostrum and passive immunity transfer management

Genetic Selection

Genetic selection in cow herds often centers on expected progeny differences (EPD) associated with performance such as milk, and weaning, yearling and carcass weight, or American Angus Association indexes such as $ Wean, $Beef, $Feedlot and $Grid. An operation promoting a health assurance program should focus on additional trait EPDs associated with calving ease, birth weight and moderate milk, and indexes such as dollars for energy ($EN) or the Red Angus Association’s metabolizable energy (ME). These last two EPD are associated with feed costs for the cow herd.

In addition, livestock stewards should focus on other heritable physical traits not represented by EPDs, such as udder and teat conformation, and mothering ability. These health assurance traits are associated with maximizing the transfer of immunity from cow to calf shortly after birth, which is critical to calf health and expressing genetic potential.

Nutrition Management

Nutrition management focuses on providing the nutrient requirements for the cow during the different seasons of the year and to match the cow’s stage of production. Maintaining adequate body condition scores near 5 and meeting protein, mineral and trace mineral requirements during gestation are critical to the lifetime productivity of a cow and her progeny.

Critical periods when supplementation may be needed are during dry weather when pasture forage is limited and mature, and cattle require extra protein and energy. Cows also may need supplementation when their body condition scores are less than ideal prior to calving.

This management area is important to the development of the gestating calf, the expression of genetic potential and the formation of high-quality colostrum.

Stress Management
“Managing stress for health assurance focuses on lowering cow and calf stress at birth, which means calving ease, and calving during the season of the year when environmental stress is minimized,” Stokka says.

Calving during more favorable weather normally allows for more space for calving, which reduces the chances of the calves becoming exposed to potential pathogens. Colder and wetter environmental conditions in winter and early spring in the northern Plains and heat stress in summer-calving herds can contribute to calves taking more time to stand and nurse, which reduces the absorption of immunity from colostrum.

Colostrum and Passive Immunity Transfer Management
All of the other health assurance management areas are related to the dam’s production of high-quality colostrum. They also relate to the calves’ ability to nurse and absorb the immunity and nutrients in colostrum. If newborn calves are at risk of even a partial failure of this transfer of immunity, then replacement colostrum products should be administered as soon as possible after birth.

“Health assurance needs to be the focus of livestock producers and requires attention to management in the areas of genetic selection for health, nutrition for health and reducing stress,” Stokka says. “It should be evident that producing healthy calves is more than just purchasing health insurance products.

“Request a written health assurance protocol from your veterinarian,” he adds. “Today’s livestock veterinary professionals have been trained to provide more than just individual treatments and surgery; they’re also trained to be a consulting member of beef cattle operations.”

Source: North Dakota State University