Last chance to take action against winter cattle diseases

Tommie O'Brien tends to his Limousin bull at the Mayo/Sligo Mart's pedigree show and sale in Ballina, Co Mayo. The bull fetched €2,200 and was bought by John Kearns
Tommie O'Brien tends to his Limousin bull at the Mayo/Sligo Mart's pedigree show and sale in Ballina, Co Mayo. The bull fetched €2,200 and was bought by John Kearns

Peadar O Scanaill

The grass is here at last and the beef cattle are out. Some finishers must stay indoors to be fed concentrates before reaching slaughter weights, but for the rest of the herd it's out to the green pastures for the summer. We must at this stage tidy up any winter diseases to allow the stock a free run at pasture weight gain.

Lice will have built up over the winter, and if evidence of lice can be seen on coats then treatment is advised. Lice are a skin parasite and live off the animals' skin tissue, affecting weight gain first by sapping the good out of the animal and second by skin irritation. This causes the animal to spend much of the day scratching, as opposed to grazing.

The pour-on products are very effective and have a residual effect in the body -- that is to say that they continue to kill lice for weeks after application. They are absorbed into the blood stream and thus delivered to the entire skin area. The older washes and powders were only effective at application time and needed many repeat applications to eventually kill all hatched larvae.

Some younger stock will have been exposed to coccidiosis while housed. The coccidia will still be present in the animals' dung and can cause disease in the cohorts even while grazing. This occurs when coccidia eggs are deposited around wet watering areas or troughs. Faecal contamination of the water troughs can easily occur when jostling of animals is in full swing. A farm with a known coccidiosis problem over last winter would be wise to seek veterinary advice as whether to treat at turnout.

Ringworm is another common winter condition that may need attention at turnout. Some cases will resolve themselves when cattle go out, but very bad outbreaks should be dealt with now at the end of winter. Treatment for ringworm can be difficult as the more common medication is no longer available here.

Vaccination is useful, if a bit more difficult, to administer. It is effective all the same and time spent now could avoid a big flare-up next autumn. The ringworm spores can live on trees and cattle rubbing against tree trunks will leave the fungal infection there for the next guy to pick up. Ringworm can spread to humans, so be careful when handling infected cattle.

The next one has been mentioned before but I will mention it again, and that is liver fluke. Liver fluke is a countrywide problem at this stage and the meat industries, especially the home-butchered market, are constantly telling us they cannot source good-quality clean livers. All too often, the livers of otherwise healthy beef cattle are contaminated with both immature and mature fluke.

We can blame the wet climate, but I feel we could do a lot more to reduce the fluke burden in our beef animals. One way is to check last year's grazing animals as they leave the sheds this spring. Your vet can easily check dung samples for evidence of over-wintered fluke larvae. This will tell you two things:

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  • Whether to dose now or not;
  • How effective last winter's fluke dose was.

This information is needed to formulate your parasite control programme for the grazing season. More dung samples throughout the year are very useful to re-focus your efforts and maximise the effectiveness of your veterinary medicines. Some of these medicines are over-used; others are under-used and, in the case of fluke, an emerging resistance problem is developing all the time. Let's use wisely and appropriately and leave good livers in our thriving beef cattle.

Routine farm chores are in full swing around now. Squeezing and dehorning any animals missed at a younger age are all due now. Blackleg vaccination is best given before any squeezing is carried out, as the act of squeezing bull calves can itself cause blackleg attack.

Dehorning should be a thing of the past, but we still see a few misfortunates needing skulling each spring. We all hate the job and wish it was gone forever, but each year there always remains a few.

So to recap, let's tick off the list of chores before we open the gates to the summer graze:

  • Check and treat for lice;
  • Coccidiosis dose may be required in certain batches;
  • Over-wintered fluke -- identify if present and plan accordingly;
  • Ringworm treatment where required;
  • Blackleg vaccination;
  • Castration/squeezing any missed animals;
  • That dreaded dehorning -- cut off any offending horns before turnout.

Peadar O Scanaill is a member of Veterinary Ireland Animal Health Committee and a practising veterinary surgeon in Ashbourne, Co Meath. Email:

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