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Ward off diseases with a herd health plan

Beef farms are frantically feeding the housed and out-wintered stock. Another cold snap is due but, hopefully, not as severe as last month.

The suckler cow is heavily pregnant and should be fed roughage and minerals to avoid an over-fat cow at calving time. High roughage intake helps keep the rumen bulked up and quite full at all times. Ad-lib hay or silage keeps the digestive tract working as it moves and mixes the stomach contents before digestion. This generates heat and is especially important in cows being kept outdoors. The full rumen also means that we see much less displaced stomachs in the beef herd than we do in their dairy-cow cousins.

The minerals being fed are to ward off milk fever in particular, but also a range of other metabolic diseases that we see. These include magnesium deficiency, iodine deficiency and copper deficiency. On many beef farms, we also see low selenium levels in the diet. The mineral mix should include selenium in these farms, with some notable exceptions.

The northeast has well-known pockets of high selenium soils and the forage on those farms can carry excess selenium into those cows. Because most mineral boluses or powders are made for general use, they often have added selenium in them.

We have seen added selenium causing endless havoc in farms already high in that mineral. The net effect is endless calving difficulties, a lot of retained placenta after calving and nasty womb infections, resulting in sick cows. This leads to weaker calves with deaths observed in bad cases.

The important point is that livestock farmers know what their cows need, and they feed accordingly. The farm vet can blood test a few cows and nutrition advisers can sample the silage or diet mix. For mineral analysis, it is usual to test about 10pc of the herd to get an accurate read.

As the calving is still a few weeks away, now is a good time to do a herd-health plan, including taking some representative sampling. The veterinary health plan allows farmers to set out the correct vaccination programmes to protect against common livestock diseases. It also allows herd owners to tease out last year's difficulties with the newborn calves and the suckling mothers.

Under the heading of minerals you'll include milk fever, tetany and iodine deficiencies. Copper and selenium may vary on different farms, and the farmer and his/her vet will work out what is, and is not, needed.

One or two other topics to discuss at the herd-plan stage would include Johne's Disease and colostrum feeding.

Some beef breeds may have a higher incidence of Johne's than others. What this means is that when sourcing replacement heifers, especially good-quality pedigree stock, we should have a protocol on how to avoid bringing that disease into an otherwise clean farm. This protocol gets written into your herd health plan by your farm vet.

The feeding of colostrum on beef farms must also be teased out before the calving starts. On many farms, we still see colostrum from a neighbouring dairy farm being stored and thawed, to be used on beef farms. Farmers must discuss with their vet the enormous risk this poses to their farms. How disease-free is that neighbouring dairy farm?

To conclude, the easiest way to bring a disease onto a farm is to buy in an animal with it. The next is to take a blood transfusion from a cow on one farm and put it into a cow on another. This is never done, of course, but using another farm's colostrum on your own is almost the same thing.

Colostrum is filtered and made by the blood of the cow in her mammary gland, and nature allows that colostrum to cross directly into the blood of the newborn calf. Thus, any diseases present, such as Johne's in particular, will pass directly into the bloodstream of the calf that is fed that colostrum.

Do the herd-health plan with your vet and change the old farm practices.

Of the other practices that work well, continue with them, but never be afraid to ask if they can be improved.

Peadar Ó Scanaill is a vet in Ashbourne, Co Meath, and is a member of the Animal Health Committee of Veterinary Ireland. Email:

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