Create a herd health plan and get one up on disease

Peadar O'Scannaill

Slash medication costs and make savings through healthy livestock simply by mapping out a plan with your vet to prevent, reduce and react to any infectious on-farm threat

'My calves are scouring" was the query the other morning. "You'd better come and have a look." This was a mixed enterprise farm of breeding ewes and a third generation dairy farm. The problem proved to be an outbreak of coccidiosis in the calves, probably due to an issue in the calf house.

The whole process led to a step-by-step diagnosis, treatment and control plan, and we finished by putting a herd health plan in place for the farm.

What is a herd health


A herd health plan is a process organised between the farmer and the vet where disease risks are highlighted and discussed, and a plan is put in place to prevent and treat as the need arises. A proper herd health plan usually begins just as I've described above, with an outbreak of some disease or other on a particular farm.

The farmer and the vet set about identifying the disease and treating any affected cases as appropriate.

We'll go through a few common scenarios in a moment, but for now let's imagine a disease as being like a small bush fire, or a small leak inside a large ship. We have to identify where a fire is likely to start or where a leak might suddenly spring.

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We then set about putting plans in place to prevent the fire or block the leak. With disease on farms there are very well defined points of highest risk. The herd health plan outlines the points of greatest risk and the actions to take in order to reduce or prevent that risk. It would also outline what to do if the disease actually gets a foothold.

Virus Pneumonia in Calves

A herd health plan for calves would always mention virus pneumonia (as well as scour and joint ill, etc).

It would identify the usual source of the calves -- a dairy farm breeds its own, a suckler farm breeds its own, whereas a beef farm may buy some in. Does the farm buy in calves from the mart? Does it source them from neighbouring dairy farms where the farm of origin is always known?

Virus pneumonia is more likely to strike at or around a period of stress. It is also likely to strike when animals are housed.

This risk is greatly increased if the ventilation is not at its best. Therefore a herd health plan would advise a vaccination programme tailored to suit that farm.

If the calves are home-reared and pneumonia is rarely seen on the farm, then vaccination may be left until much later in the calves' lives.

If the calves are bought in batches over several months but are all from one or two known sources, then the vaccine can be given on the farm of origin. It's not important who supplies the vaccine, the vendor or the purchaser; what is important is that the calves receive their vaccine before the stressful time of travel. This means it's best to vaccinate them two to three weeks before they move from the farm of origin.

If that's not possible then move them to their new farm as one big batch and leave them outdoors if appropriate, and let them settle as a separate batch before mixing them with the main herd. Vaccination before mixing would be appropriate.

And so on goes the herd health plan outlining the best options for each individual farm in the face of any specific disease risk.

Obviously, the disease risk with virus pneumonia increases hugely if calves are bought in lots of one or two from the mart. Those calves would have been well stressed leaving home, mixing with all the other livestock at the auction yard, and then mixing with the newly put-together animals as they head to the farm of destination.

That's a dangerous soup of risk factors that will crank up the chances of a viral pneumonia outbreak.

Those calves will need a vaccine as they come down off the ramp to cover all three types of pneumonia.

The vaccine will have a very hard job to do in attempting to prevent a full outbreak and eventual losses. In the case of my calves with coccidiosis, we put together a step-by-step approach to stop the nasty scour in its tracks. It included an immediate treatment of all affected stock.

Thankfully we could move the calves to a new housing area, and we set about cleaning and disinfecting the original calf-house. A suitable coccidiostat was administered to the calves.

This was repeated later as per the manufacturers' instructions. Repeat sampling was carried out later to ensure that no sub-clinical disease was lurking under the surface.

It was agreed to clean and rest the sheds between each batch, and to use footbaths and wash-down points between certain areas of the farm.

As sheep and cattle are both affected by coccidiosis, the herd health plan identified the crossover risk points.

It set out how to prevent the disease from spreading to the sheep, or, even worse, spreading indoors to humans as this is a zoonotic disease.

The plan highlights the importance of a clean bedding area and having clean, fresh water available to every batch. Treatment plans would then become less important as the prevention methods take hold.

The overall aim of a good herd health plan is to reduce disease presence on a farm to the very minimum.

This should reduce treatment medication costs to an all-time low, while probably increasing some preventative medicine costs (ie: vaccine costs, etc).

But the overall saving comes in healthier livestock, far less time wasted minding sick stock and greater liveweight gain day-on-day.

Herd health plans offer real benefits for livestock holdings but the farmer must experience a real benefit to his/her farm if they are to stick with it year-on-year.

Peadar Ó Scanaill is a veterinary practitioner in Ashbourne, Co Meath. Email:

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