Herd Health Plan

Every cattle producer has the goal to efficiently utilize available forage, labor, management, and financial resources to produce cattle that will meet customers’ expectations and desires. Outbreaks of disease that result in sickness, reduced reproductive or growth efficiency, or death not only negatively affects animal welfare but also will drastically reduce the efficiency of saleable production from the available resources. Protecting the health of cattle herds is an important part of a successful plan to have a profitable and sustainable ranching operation. Besides a veterinarian’s value in diagnosing and treating cattle that become sick, he or she can have great value in preventing disease and ensuring optimum production in beef cattle herds.  

A complete health plan should be established between veterinarians and producers that accomplishes at least the following goals: 

  1. Establish a biosecurity plan to minimize the introduction of disease-causing germs onto your farm by developing a testing and isolation plan for new or returning cattle, a vaccination protocol, and a traffic flow and visitor restriction plan to reduce the likelihood of infectious disease.
  • New cattle (including new bulls, replacement heifers and cows, and purchased calves) should be isolated away from the herd for at least one month. During this time the new additions should be vaccinated to bring them into the same protocol as the resident herd and may be tested to determine if they are carriers for diseases of importance to the herd. If at any time during the quarantine period the incoming cattle exhibit signs of diarrhea, lameness, respiratory disease, excessive tearing or eye lesions, rough skin or hair loss, or any other sign of disease, a veterinarian should be called to examine all the animals in the group and the quarantine period extended.  
  • Every herd should have a sound vaccination protocol based on consultation with your veterinarian that is appropriate for your specific risk factors. In most herds, cattle will be vaccinated with one or more products at several times during the year. Calves are routinely vaccinated against clostridial diseases such as blackleg when they are still nursing. Vaccinations, before or at the time of weaning, are implemented to develop immunity to reduce the risk of respiratory disease. Replacement heifers and yearling bulls deserve special attention prior to the start of their first breeding season to establish strong immunity to diseases that cause reproductive loss. And vaccinations of adult cows and bulls are implemented to reduce the risk of infectious disease that can cause abortions.  
  • When implementing a vaccination protocol, it is important to handle and administer the products according to label instructions in order to ensure their greatest effectiveness and compliance with beef quality assurance guidelines. For example, if a vaccine is labeled for use Sub-Q (under the skin) administration, it must be administered under the skin in the neck region. If a label indicates that the product should be given in the muscle, it should be given in the neck muscles. Do not vaccinate into the rear leg of a calf or cow. 
  • Part of biosecurity is to minimize the spread of germs that are already on a ranch so that least amount of disease occurs. A plan to keep young calves and pregnant cows away from cattle imported from other operations (such as stocker cattle or incoming replacements) and away from fence-line contact with other herds will decrease the risk of devastating disease outbreaks. 
  1. Establish a sanitation plan to minimize the potential for spread of disease-causing germs in manure between animals in calving and nursery pastures, in feeding areas, and by means of feed handling equipment (front-end loaders, feed wagons, etc.).  
  • The germs that cause diarrhea diseases (scours) can be passed in manure from one animal to another. Therefore it is very important that young calves are born and housed in the cleanest situation possible. Strategies to improve sanitation for young calves include avoiding calving in the same pasture where cows were fed all winter and selecting calving pastures that: are large enough for cows to spread apart, have some natural or man-made shelter, and are not in a low, or mud-prone area. In addition, I prefer to avoid using bale-rings in calving and nursery pastures – spread the hay and move the feeding location daily. 
  • To prevent scours, two important goals are to avoid exposing calves less than three weeks of age to mud and to older calves. Grouping cow-calf pairs so that all the calves in a nursery pasture are as close in age as possible will greatly reduce the risk of scours. The Sandhills calving system capitalizes on this strategy to ensure sanitation and segregation from older calves so that calf health is optimized. 
  1. Establish a parasite control program to effectively use de-wormers and pasture management for internal parasite control, and establish the use of sanitation and fly and lice control products to minimize economic loss due to external parasites. Calves and yearlings have much less natural resistance to internal parasites than adult cattle, therefore cattle less than two years of age deserve special attention.  
  1. Establish a program to optimize the use of performance-promoting products such as growth-promoting implants and ionophores in growing cattle. Ionophores create an environment in the rumen that favors the growth of microbes that more efficiently convert forages and grains into energy. These products also inhibit the parasites that cause coccidiosis.  
  1. Establish a program to minimize calving difficulty in first-calf heifers by proper replacement heifer selection, nutrition, and sire selection. Replacements should be selected from heifers born in the first 40 days of the calving season to excellent dams and desirable sires. From weaning until breeding at a little older than one year of age, replacement heifers should receive high quality forages or supplements in order to ensure that they gain enough weight to reach 60-65% of their mature weight prior to the start of their first breeding season. Heifers should be bred to calve a little ahead of the mature cow herd to allow them to receive extra attention during calving and because first calf heifers take longer to resume fertile cycles after calving than mature cows. Heifers should be bred to bulls with EPDs indicating calving ease and they may need supplementation during parts of the year in order to reach a target of 85% of their mature weight at the time of calving.   
  1. Establish a method to evaluate the herd’s performance (records) in the areas of: pregnancy rates, death loss, growth (weaning weight) and nutritional needs (body condition scores). Traditionally, the herd is evaluated at the time of calf weaning to identify the number of calves weaned per cow exposed for breeding, the percentage of the cow herd that became pregnant in a controlled breeding season, and the body condition of cows that completed lactation on the available forage. This is also an ideal time to closely observe cows for problems such as cancer eye, mastitis or other udder or teat problems, foot or hoof problems, or any signs of disease.  
  1. Establish disease treatment protocols for the herd as well as proper injection sites, injection routes (sub-Q, intra-muscular, intra-venous, etc.), dosages, and any withdrawal times to be observed. The privilege and responsibility to use antibiotics, vaccines, dewormers, insecticides, estrous synchronization hormones, and other products appropriately is important to everyone in the cattle industry. To evaluate the best available products and procedures, the herd veterinarian and producer should routinely meet to update disease prevention and control strategies.  

While specific herd health plans will vary between ranches, all producers should start by ensuring that their plan meets the seven goals listed above. By working with your veterinarian to meet these goals, the costs of disease and production loss can be minimized and animal welfare enhanced.


Pinkeye is a painful eye disease that is found throughout the world. This disease is more common in cattle with light-colored faces and in situations with bright sunlight, dust, and certain other environmental conditions. Herd outbreaks of pinkeye may occur at any time of the year, but the risk is highest during the summer months.  

The germs causing pinkeye generally follow a minor eye injury caused by bright sunlight, dust, wind, tall grass or weeds, plant seeds, pollen, face flies, or diseases such as bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR). If these insults are not followed by an infection with pinkeye germs, the animal will only have a short period of irritation as evidenced by excessive tearing. In contrast, if injured eyes become infected, serious problems can result. A veterinarian may need to examine affected cattle to determine whether an eye problem is due to pinkeye or another disease. 

Several different organisms cause pinkeye infections; the most common being Moraxella bovis. This germ has hair-like structures which allow the organism to become attached to the surface of the eye. In addition this bacteria produces an enzyme that destroys cells on the eye’s surface. Moraxella bovis can be transmitted to other cattle by direct contact with eye discharges or may be carried from one animal to another by face flies. Face flies are involved in the spread of pinkeye because they are very irritating to the eyes of cattle, making them more susceptible to infection, and they pick up the organism while feeding on the face of infected animals and can spread it to the eyes of other cattle as they move through a herd. Calves are believed to be more susceptible to pinkeye than older animals partly because they have not developed immunity and also because their eyes are physically closer to dust, pollen, and tall grass or weeds.  

Generally it is believed that cattle that have been infected with a particular type of Moraxella bovis will not develop the disease again for more than a year. However, there are various types or families of this germ, and immunity to one type does not mean the animal is immune to the other types of the organism. In addition, other germs can cause pinkeye infections, and immunity to previous Moraxella bovis infections will not protect against these infections.  

The earliest sign of pinkeye is increased tearing which appears as excessive wetness around the eyes. When examined more closely, the inside lining of the eyelid and the white portion of the eye will appear red, and then as the disease progresses the eye becomes cloudy or white. An ulcer often is formed in the center of visual portion of the eye and if the ulcer it is deep enough, the eye can rupture. Without treatment, many animals will heal in 3 to 6 weeks. Some animals heal with no evidence of previous problems, while more severely affected individuals will have a white scar on the eye surface that may fade over time. Eyes that have ruptured will become blind and extremely disfigured. 

Treating cattle with pinkeye with injections of antibiotics and reducing exposure to dust, weeds, and sunlight is the best method of treatment. Most strains of Moraxella bovis are susceptible to antibiotics that can be injected under the skin of the neck. Covering the eye with a patch glued over the face or by sewing the eyelids shut will help to make the animal more comfortable by decreasing sunlight exposure and it helps to decrease the spread of the disease.  If possible, affected calves should be moved to shaded areas (to avoid direct sunlight) with no dust and where they can be easily treated. Of course, the calves and their dams should be provided with adequate feed and water until they can be turned back out with the rest of the herd once the eyes have healed. 

Prevention and control of pinkeye involves reducing exposure to environmental risk factors such as dust, pollen, and tall grass and weeds through pasture management, reducing face fly burden through use of chemical pesticides, and by isolation of affected individuals from the rest of the herd. 

The fact that animals appear to be immune to M. bovis following recovery after an infection and that older animals have a higher level of natural immunity, would lead one to believe that vaccination would provide an effective method of prevention. However, use of vaccines to prevent pinkeye disease has not been particularly successful. Although these vaccines have been shown to be partially protective, they may not be completely protective due to the ability of Moraxella bovis to change type, the presence of other organisms, or environmental factors that allow the organism to overcome the animal’s immune system. 

Pinkeye is a frustrating disease because ranchers can go many years without problems, and then they can have a year where a high percentage of calves are affected – even though no apparent changes have taken place. Although vaccines are commonly used to help protect against the disease, there are a number of factors that work against this being a highly effective strategy. Treatment of pinkeye cases requires a lot of labor usually at a time when calves are on pasture and difficult to capture individually. Although no simple solutions are available, a commitment to: good pasture management, effective fly control, and early detection and treatment of eye problems is the best strategy to minimize the effects of this disease. 

Preconditioning as a marketing strategy for feeder cattle 

Cattle producers who manage newly-weaned feeder cattle recognize that calves that are castrated and dehorned, trucked, commingled with new pen-mates, and given a completely new diet – all near the time of weaning, are at high risk for bovine respiratory disease. Pneumonia or bovine respiratory disease (also known as BRD) can be caused by a combination of several factors. These factors are stress (shipment, mixing with new cattle, and diet change), viral infection, and bacterial infection. BRD is generally considered to be a disease of stocker or feedlot cattle that are trucked to a feeding facility, commingled with new animals, and exposed to new feed and water sources. Age is also a factor with recently weaned calves and light stocker calves having higher sickness and death risk than yearling cattle.  

Preconditioning programs aim to reduce the number of stressful situations that a feeder calf has to deal with as it is moved from the ranch of origin to a stocker or feedlot operation. Trucking and exposure to new animals is unavoidable in most situations, but other known stresses can be managed. Preconditioning programs have been designed by universities, pharmaceutical and biological companies, marketing groups, and integrated production chain alliances.  The overall target of decreasing the risk of BRD and other diseases is the same among different preconditioning programs, yet specific requirements can vary widely.  For example, preconditioning programs for cattle entering an all-natural program may differ from programs for cattle in a traditional management scheme.  Other examples include the utilization or prohibition of specific vaccines, dewormers, growth implants, feed additives, and feed ingredients. 

Castration and dehorning have been shown to severely decrease feed intake and gain and increase the risk of disease when done at the feedlot. If these stresses can be done earlier in life (<2-4 months of age), the negative effects are greatly reduced. Castration prior to shipment is one of the oldest and most common components of preconditioning programs.  Bull calves that are not castrated until they arrive at a feedyard or stocker facility have higher risk of illness and death and decreased performance relative to comparable steer mates.  Whether or not bull calves have been castrated is easy to tell, and castrated calves typically garner higher prices than comparable intact bull calves. 

Because viral diseases such as IBR (infectious bovine rhinotracheitis) and BVD (bovine viral diarrhea) are associated with BRD, vaccination programs to decrease the risk of infection with these viruses are key components of preconditioning programs. Vaccines directed against bacteria that are associated with BRD such as Mannheimia haemolytica, Pasteurella multocida, and Haemophilus somnus are included in some preconditioning programs, but not all. The challenge in developing the best vaccination strategy is to select the correct vaccines and to deliver them in the best fashion and at the correct times to create a response that will protect the calves. 

Weaning on the ranch of origin for 30 to 45 days is a component of many preconditioning programs.  Calves in these systems face relatively low levels of disease challenge because they are not trucked or commingled with new cattle during the stressful period immediately following separation from their dams and tend to have comparatively low risk of becoming sick.   

Preconditioning programs may also require that calves become accustomed to grain-based feeds fed in a feedbunk. The greatest risk for BRD occurs soon after arrival to the feedyard, and adequate nutrition in the first weeks is critical to allow the animal to overcome stress and disease challenges. Better feed intake in the arrival period is believed to be strongly influenced by familiarity with feeds other than grass or hay and by feeding behaviors other than grazing. Inclusion of a period allowing cattle to understand the procedure for eating from a bunk in the low-stress environment of their home ranch is a valuable component of a complete preconditioning program.   

Feeder calf nutritional status is difficult to evaluate visually, but body condition is often used as a gauge of previous management.  Preconditioning programs that incorporate weaning and feeding for a period of time may result in cattle with good flesh scores at the time of sale.  Fleshy cattle may be viewed as healthier, yet still garner a price discount because buyers will be unable to capture compensatory gains.  The goal is to find a balance between healthy calves with adequate nutritional status and the potential for rapid, efficient weight gains after the calves leave the ranch. 

Adding management such as dehorning and castration, vaccinating, weaning and starting on a grain-based diet are designed to reduce the risk of disease once an animal has left the ranch of origin, but these activities will increase costs for cow-calf producers. In order to benefit from these expenditures, producers must increase the income they receive for their calves (price ´ pounds). Preconditioned calves routinely receive a higher price than similar calves that have not been preconditioned, but net income includes not only the price received, but also the total weight sold and costs incurred; therefore, producers considering a preconditioning program should calculate the difference between their cost of weight gain and the increased value of the weight gain. Before determining the economic risks and rewards of preconditioning, several factors including the marketing method and timing, cyclical market fluctuations, fixed costs (overhead), variable costs (primarily feed), and the goals of the producer should be considered.  

Cow-calf producers may face obstacles to implement preconditioning management on their ranch due to lack of facilities and labor necessary to keep weaned calves on the farm, or from a reluctance to bear the health risks for post-weaning calves. In some areas of the country, raised or local feedstuffs are not available at a price that allows low cost of gain. These obstacles are legitimate reasons that some producers should not precondition their calves. To overcome these obstacles, producers must be able to utilize cost-effective weaning, working, and feeding facilities, obtain feed at a competitive cost, grow the calves at a high enough rate of gain to allow a low cost of gain, and sell the calves in marketing channels and to buyers that reward preconditioning. Another consideration that supports increased utilization of precondition by cow-calf producers is that beef production is shifting toward a consumer focus and new areas are achieving more attention including: individual animal identification, value-based marketing, animal health and welfare, food safety, as well as source, process, and age verification.  These changes in the beef industry are compatible with concepts of preconditioning management and should serve to generate further interest in preconditioning throughout the beef production chain. 

Summer Pneumonia of Suckling Calves 

Calves running with their dams on grass pastures are considered to be at low risk for developing pneumonia because they are not facing any of the risks typically associated with bovine respiratory disease (i.e. trucking, commingling, diet change, etc.). However, every year, outbreaks of “summer pneumonia” in calves occur in some herds. The viruses and bacteria that are associated with summer pneumonia of suckling calves are very common and it is assumed that they are present in every herd of cattle. Therefore, these disease-causing germs are only a problem if they are able to multiply in the lungs to the point where they cause enough damage for the calf to show signs of illness.  

Even though the well-known stresses that often contribute to pneumonia in weaned calves are not present in suckling calves on pasture; stresses such as dust, temperature swings between afternoon highs and nighttime lows, or close contact with other calves are believed to increase the risk of summer pneumonia.  

Because cattle grazing pastures are not typically observed daily, the first sign of problems may be finding one or more dead calves with other calves showing signs of pneumonia such as rapid breathing, laying down and being reluctant to rise, and having a high rectal temperature. I recommend that a necropsy be performed on calves that are found dead in the pasture in order to look for signs of pneumonia or other potential causes of death. A number of other causes of loss in suckling calves such as: blackleg, sudden death caused by Clostridial perfringens, trauma, and digestive tract disease can be differentiated from pneumonia by a necropsy examination. In some situations, tissue samples may be sent to a diagnostic laboratory for further investigation.  

Calves that exhibit signs of pneumonia should be treated with injectable antibiotics to combat bacterial causes of respiratory disease. If treated early enough in the disease process, many calves are likely to recover; however, calves with advanced lung damage may not respond to treatment. If the pneumonia is caused by a virus such as bovine respiratory syncitial virus (BRSV), antibiotic treatment will not be a directly effective treatment. In addition to antibiotic treatment, young calves with pneumonia should be protected from weather extremes, dusty conditions, and poor forage – this may require moving them and their dam to a new pasture or grass-trap.  

Because a number of different bacteria and viruses can cause pneumonia in suckling calves, prevention is focused on: protecting calves from environmental stress, ensuring that adequate forage is available for the dam and calf, as well as maintaining good herd immunity with available vaccines. Some veterinarians recommend that herds with a history of summer pneumonia vaccinate young calves at “turn-out” or “branding time” with vaccines against the viruses IBR (infectious bovine rhinotracheitis), BVD (bovine viral diarrhea), PI3 (parainfluenza 3), and BRSV (bovine respiratory syncitial virus) as well as bacteria that are associated with pneumonia such as Mannheimia haemolytica, or possibly Pasturella multocida and Histophilus somni. The theory behind this strategy is that summer pneumonia is most likely to occur as the immune protection from the dam that the calf received in colostrum is declining and before the calf develops its own immunity to common pneumonia-causing germs. The specific vaccines that you should consider should be decided by working with your veterinarian to identify your risk and likely effectiveness of calf vaccinations. Following the label directions and working with your veterinarian will help guide the selection of the type and timing of vaccination to reduce the risk of summer pneumonia. 

It may not be possible to completely avoid the risk of an outbreak of pneumonia in suckling calves, but focusing on good overall health of the cows and calves by: meeting the herd’s nutritional needs, providing a good environment, and timely use of vaccinations in the cows and calves are important tools. If calves are affected with pneumonia while suckling their dams on summer range, they should be given the best possible care and treated with appropriate antibiotics. No one likes dealing with summer pneumonia of calves, but working to decrease the risk and being prepared to recognize and treat cases early are the best methods to be prepared to minimize losses. 

Fescue Toxicosis

Tall fescue is a commonly grown forage for cattle, particularly in the southeastern and lower midwest states, as well as the Pacific northwest. This grass originally came from Europe and was discovered growing in a few isolated stands in the U.S. in the early 1930’s. It was recognized as being easy to establish with a long growing season, resistant to drought and insects, and able to grow on many types of soil. However, it was soon discovered that cattle performance was negatively affected by the grass. 

Today, we know that a high percentage of tall fescue pastures are infected with a fungus that grows inside the plant (so it is not visible to the eye) and the fungus produces a number of chemicals that provide both the positive and negative attributes of the grass. Not all fescue pastures are infected with endophyte fungus, and the percentage of plants in a given pasture that are infected will vary from one pasture to another. Generally speaking, the greater the percentage of plants infested with the fungus in a pasture, the greater the negative effects of fescue toxicosis. Although the fungus is found throughout the tall fescue plant, it is found in the highest concentration in the seed head and stems with lesser concentrations in the leaves. The fungus can be spread to un-infected pastures if infected seeds blow or are transported to bare ground where it can become established. 

Cattle grazing heavily infected stands will consume less grass, gain less weight, and have lower pregnancy rates than cattle grazing other types of forage. Cattle with fescue toxicosis syndrome are often recognized by having a rough, long haircoat and being thin. In addition, severely affected cattle will have high body temperature, and they will attempt to cool themselves by standing in water and seeking shade. Blood flow to the feet, tail switch, and ears is reduced, and in cold weather, affected cattle can slough the ends of their tails and the tips of their ears and in some cases, even the hooves can slough. 

Cattlemen with infected tall fescue pastures have a number of options. In many situations, because of fescue’s positive properties, they may choose to live with it and work to reduce the negative effects by inter-seeding legumes into the pasture to dilute the intake of fescue. In addition, if other types of forage are available, cattle can be moved off of infected pastures during the summer months when the effects are most severe. If fescue is grazed heavily so that the plants are kept short, less endophyte fungus will be present in each bite of grass. Grain supplementation also acts to dilute the amount of endophyte consumed. Cows fed grain along with highly infected fescue hay had reduced winter weight loss and improved pregnancy rates compared to cows fed infected hay alone.

Some producers may decide to invest the resources necessary to avoid the endophyte completely by replanting infected stands of tall fescue with non-infected varieties of fescue or other grasses. There are endophyte-free as well as novel-endophyte varieties of tall fescue that can be used to replace the endophyte infested stand. The novel-endophyte varieties are infected with strains of fungus that provide some of the beneficial effects with few of the detrimental effects. 

Attempts to reduce the effects of the endophyte fungus through feed additives or treatments applied to the cattle have not consistently shown benefits. However, it is recommended that cattle grazing infected fescue not be additionally stressed by heavy parasite loads, mineral deficiencies, or other disease. The best approach to managing fescue so that the negative effects of the endophyte are minimized will depend on your local conditions. By working closely with area extension and agronomy specialists, you can develop a plan for coping with this problem.

Mastitis in Beef Cows

Although mastitis (infection of the udder) is often considered a dairy cow problem rather than a beef cow problem, the disease does affect many beef herds. Most cases of mastitis only involve one quarter (one teat) of a cow’s udder and the other three quarters remain normal. Even though most cases of mastitis do not result in the complete loss of milk production, calves from affected cows have lighter weaning weights than if their dam had a normal udder. Occasionally, mastitis causes severe illness in the cow, but in most situations, the cow is not greatly affected other than having reduced milk production. Mastitis can occur at any stage of lactation or even when the cow is dry, but most commonly becomes a problem early in lactation shortly after a cow calves.  

Most cases of mastitis are caused by germs that are very common in the environment and on a cow’s skin. Occasionally, mastitis is caused by injury to the udder.  Lactating cows are by far the most commonly affected, but heifers and even bulls or steers can have infected udders. Severe cases of mastitis, when the udder becomes reddened, swollen, and hot to the touch and the cow shows signs of illness such as being off-feed and inactive, will result in severe weight loss in the calf and cow and occasionally the death of either the cow or calf. Often, a beef producer or veterinarian will not notice a cow with mastitis because beef cattle are not typically observed daily from a short distance and many cases do not result in visible swelling or other signs of udder infection. In situations when cases of mastitis are not detected, the cow is likely to remain infected throughout the lactation and possibly for the rest of her life.  

If mastitis is diagnosed, cows can be treated with special formulations of antibiotics that can be infused into the udder itself through the end of the teat. The veterinarian may also choose to treat cows with mastitis with antibiotics injected under the skin of the neck that then travel through the blood stream to the udder. Many cases of mastitis respond well to treatment, but some quarters never return to full milk production. If a cow with mastitis is severely ill, the veterinarian may recommend aggressive therapy with frequent milking out of the affected quarter, the use of anti-inflammatory drugs, and antibiotic therapy.  

Because beef cows are not handled frequently, the most common time to check cows for mastitis is when they are gathered for purposes of vaccination, fly control, or breeding early in lactation, or at the end of lactation when the cows are checked for pregnancy status and/or the calves are weaned. Some herds routinely check udders and treat any affected cows at the time the calves are weaned.  

Although it is probably not possible to prevent all cases of mastitis, heavy fly populations, calving in a drylot, and poor teat and udder confirmation are linked with situations with multiple cows being affected in the same herd. Older cows, particularly those with larger, low-slung udders and large teats are considered to be at greater risk for mastitis. Therefore, prevention focuses on calving cows on clean pasture and avoiding calving in wet or muddy environments, culling potential replacement heifers if their dam has poor udder or teat confirmation, and controlling flies by focusing on sanitation and appropriate use of insecticides.  


Cattle are an amazing animal species for many reasons. One of the most important reasons is because they can thrive when fed a wide variety of diets and feedstuffs. Because of the rumen, cattle are able to utilize forages that are not appropriate for simple-stomach animals; in addition, cattle can eat grains, by-products of grain processing, and waste from human food production. However, it is important to know that if diets are changed without an adaptation period or if cattle have sudden access to a new feedstuff, health problems can follow.  

Changing form one roughage source to another or from a high-grain, concentrate diet to a roughage diet is usually well-tolerated; in contrast, suddenly changing from a roughage diet to a concentrate diet can be accompanied by acidosis, a serious digestive problem in grain-fed animals. In cow-calf operations, cattle are rarely intentionally fed a diet consisting primarily of grains, but sometimes growing bulls or heifers are fed a high-grain diet, and cows may have the opportunity to consume more gain than the producer intends when grain is used to supplement low-quality, dormant forage.  

Acidosis can occur following a large meal of feed rich in readily fermentable carbohydrates that causes the rate of lactic acid production in the rumen to exceed how quickly it can be used. Cereal grains such as wheat, barley, corn, sorghum (and to a lesser extent oats) as well as high sugar or starch content fruit or root crops (apples, potatoes, sugar beets etc.) are associated with acidosis. Green, unripe corn, corn or milo stubble fields, and byproduct feeds such as bakery waste, elevator fines, and some brewer’s grains are also high in starch or simple sugars making cattle eating these feeds also at risk for acidosis. Feeds that are not likely to induce acidosis are hay and fiber-type byproduct feeds. Hay does not contribute to acidosis because the energy source is mostly cellulose rather than simple sugars and the physical properties (large particle size) resist rapid fermentation. Fiber-type byproduct feeds such as soy hulls, distillers grains, or corn gluten feed are similar to hay in that the energy source is primarily cellulose with little starch or simple sugar present. Fine grinding of grain, rapid changes in the amount of grain or other high-starch feeds in the diet, or cattle that become hungry and then eat a large meal of grain are often implicated in the disease.  

Cattle that are suffering from acidosis can look a lot like cattle with respiratory disease by showing a lack of appetite, slow movement, increased heart rate and breathing rate, and elevated body temperature. In mild cases of acidosis, cattle will appear to have a full rumen, they may act uncomfortable due to a sore belly, and will probably have grey-green pasty to soupy diarrhea. In more severe cases, dehydration is severe, the animal will usually be laying down, the abdomen is markedly distended, and the animal is noticeably uncomfortable (groaning and grinding of teeth). Diarrhea is profuse and yellow-green and then progresses to watery, often foamy with a pungent odor. Death commonly follows severe cases. Cattle that recover from acidosis may develop liver abscesses, laminitis, or other secondary diseases.  

Mild cases of acidosis are commonly treated by removing the feed causing the problem and possibly administering a buffer by stomach tube. Treatment of more serious cases may include siphoning off ruminal contents with a stomach tube or surgically opening the rumen and removing the rumen contents followed by re-inoculation of fresh rumen contents from a healthy animal. In addition, large volumes of intravenous (IV) fluids are given. In this disease process, IV fluids must be used because fluids given by mouth (via stomach tube) will not be absorbed from the rumen into the rest of the body.  

Acidosis is prevented through feeding management that avoids a sudden increase in intake of grain or other readily fermentable feeds, sufficient bunk space so that aggressive eaters don’t have access to feed amounts intended for several animals, and good bunk management so that cattle are not overly hungry. In addition, inclusion of an ionophore in the ration helps to decrease the incidence and severity of acidosis. 

Cattle Health Impacts Carcass Traits

It is important for everyone involved in beef cattle production, including seedstock producers, cow-calf producers, backgrounders and stocker operators, feedlot managers, packers, retailers, feed suppliers, and veterinarians to remember that all the money distributed among the many participants is generated by the sale of beef to consumers. While it is true that carcass traits and beef product attributes are largely influenced by the genetic decisions of seedstock and commercial cow-calf producers and the feeding decisions of feedlot managers and nutritionists, the animal health decisions made by producers and veterinarians throughout the production chain also play a role. A number of studies have indicated that muscling, marbling, and tenderness all can be negatively impacted by cattle health problems.  

Studies of consumer preferences have indicated that attributes such as flavor, tenderness, marbling, and texture are important when evaluating the eating experience when consuming beef cuts. These consumer expectations are important when considering the impact of animal health because pneumonia and other common cattle diseases have the potential to affect not only carcass weight, but also the amount, location, and ratio of muscle, fat, and water.  

Bovine respiratory disease (pneumonia) is the most important cause of illness and death in feedlot cattle with digestive diseases such as acidosis and bloat also being important. Several studies have shown that cattle that experienced respiratory disease had lighter hot carcass weight, lower dressing percent, less internal fat, and lower marbling scores as well as less external fat and smaller ribeye area than cattle without respiratory disease. Scientists don’t have a clear picture of how disease impacts carcass traits, but probably a combination of changes in hormones such as insulin, growth hormone, and other signals that direct the growth of muscle and the deposition of fat are involved.  In addition, just the fact that cattle are off-feed while they are sick may impact the pattern of muscle growth and fat deposition.  

The negative effects of disease on carcass traits may not be confined to the time cattle are in a feed yard. As we learn more about muscle growth and fat deposition, it appears that stress, disease, or poor nutrition even early in life can have consequences on feedlot and carcass performance. This understanding makes a life-long health and nutrition plan to minimize disease risk and ensure optimum growth from birth to slaughter important for efficient production of a desirable beef product. Beef producers should work with veterinarians to optimize sanitation, nutrition, immunization, and biosecurity to reduce the risk of disease. In addition, because the negative effects on growth and carcass traits appear to be more severe in animals with prolonged or multiple episodes of sickness compared to animals that become sick for a short period of time and then recover, knowledge and ability to accurately identify sick animals and to treat them in a timely manner also becomes increasingly important.  

Life-long cattle health starts with the cow being in good body condition and receiving all necessary nutrients throughout pregnancy and then giving birth without calving difficultly in a clean environment. If the calf is born healthy and able to quickly stand and suckle and that calf is not exposed to mud and manure, it is likely to avoid the risk of scours and pneumonia during the time period from birth to weaning. Adequate forage availability for both the cow and calf until weaning is essential to maintain optimum health and to ensure that the calf has good post-weaning growth and health.  

Effective vaccines are available for a number of important disease-causing germs including the bacteria that cause blackleg and related diseases, and the viruses and bacteria that contribute to bovine respiratory disease. Both internal parasites (worms) and external parasites (flies, ticks, and lice) can cause significant disease in calves; and proper use and timing of deworming and external parasite treatments greatly aids in cattle health and well-being. The time period around weaning is a period of high risk for respiratory disease and other diseases. Implementation of well-designed preconditioning programs that utilize low-stress weaning, vaccinations, parasite control, and acclimation to post-weaning diets and feeding and watering equipment is an excellent disease control strategy.  

Carcass premiums and pricing on carcass merit grids has caused the veterinary profession to re-evaluate the cost of cattle diseases. Historically, veterinarians and beef producers have considered the cost of disease to be confined to death loss, treatment cost, decreased feed efficiency, and reduced live weight. However, because many cattle are now sold on a carcass merit basis, disease has the potential to affect profitability not only through treatment costs, death loss, and reduced weight, but also the amount, location, and ratio of muscle, fat, and water and the ultimate desirability of the final beef product.   

Ensuring that consumers have a satisfying experience every time they eat beef requires that all the participants in the beef production chain do their part to improve and protect the attributes of flavor, tenderness, marbling, and texture. In addition to the significant impacts that genetics and nutrition play on carcass and product traits, cattle health also has an important role; and a plan to optimize health from birth to slaughter is an important component of providing a high-quality beef product.  

Preventing Spontaneous Abortions in the Herd

Both beef producers and veterinarians express frustration when a cow that is identified as pregnant later aborts the fetus during mid-pregnancy. Because reproduction is complex and a number of germs, toxins, and genetic problems can lead to pregnancy loss, veterinarians recognize that losing about 1% to 2% of pregnancies between the time of pregnancy diagnosis and calving is probably unavoidable. The goal of many aspects of cowherd health programs including nutritional management, biosecurity, and vaccination is to reduce the risk of abortion and particularly to prevent situations when more than 5% of the herd aborts.  

Veterinarians approach abortion management by focusing on two related activities: diagnosing the causes of abortion and preventing abortions from occurring. Cowherd abortions can occur either sporadically or in larger outbreaks. Sporadic abortion losses are considered to occur when less than 2% of the entire herd aborts and no group of cows as described by age, pasture, or other risk-group has greater losses than other groups. When investigating sporadic abortion losses, it may not be justified to spend a great deal of resources to attempt to identify the causes; but if a larger abortion outbreak is occurring, a thorough investigation to discover the factors that are contributing to the losses is necessary to identify changes in herd management to prevent similar outbreaks in future years. The problem that both cattle producers and veterinarians face when a few cows abort is to determine if an abortion storm is beginning or if the few identified abortions are the only ones the herd will experience.   

When the first abortion is identified by finding an aborted fetus or seeing signs of abortion in a cow previously diagnosed as pregnant (such as a retained placenta or return to heat) the veterinarian may want to collect samples from the fetus, the cow, and the placenta and to record information about the aborting cow such as her age, the date the abortion was discovered, the estimated fetal age, and the identification of the pastures she has been located during pregnancy. The samples may be sent to a diagnostic laboratory or the veterinarian may suggest that the samples be saved and only submitted for laboratory investigation if more abortions occur. Some causes of abortion are fairly easily identified by a diagnostic laboratory if the samples are fresh, but other abortion-causing germs and toxins are difficult to confirm. Many of the causes of abortion work fairly slowly, so that there are many days or weeks between the time that a cow is exposed to the cause of the abortion and the actual loss of the fetus. In these situations, the diagnostic laboratory may not be able to identify an abortion cause that is no longer present in the fetus or the cow. In other situations, the germs or toxins that cause abortion affect the cow but may not actually invade the fetus making samples taken from the fetus of no help for making a diagnosis. It is important to realize that even in situations in which the diagnostic laboratory does not identify a cause for the abortion, important information is gained by removing certain easily-diagnosed factors from the list of likely causes.  

Veterinarians and cattle producers work together to create management plans that help to prevent abortions by targeting the most likely causes that can be effectively controlled. Biosecurity plans that rely on diagnostic testing and herd segregation to minimize the risk and effect of trichomoniasis (Trich) and Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD) should be created to meet each herd’s specific level of risk. Online tools named Trich CONSULT (https://ksubci.org/trich-consult/) and BVD CONSULT (https://ksubci.org/bvdbovine-viral-diarrhea-control-consult/) are useful to create herd-specific biosecurity plans for these diseases. Vaccination protocols to increase herd immunity against infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR), bovine viral diarrhea (BVD), leptospirosis, and campylobacteriosis (vibriosis) should be implemented with an emphasis on building immunity in herd replacements as well as maintaining immunity in mature adults.  Other diseases such as neosporosis, foothills abortion, and pine needle abortion are difficult or impossible to control with diagnostic testing, herd segregation, or vaccination. Some abortion risks must be addressed by having good feed security while other require carefully planning the best age and stage of pregnancy to expose cattle to pastures where abortions are likely to be initiated when the cause of abortion is either plants or diseases carried by ticks or other insects. Effective control measures have not been identified for some causes of abortion, and the best management in these situations is to work toward good overall herd health and to keep the accumulated level of abortion risk low.  

While it is impossible to prevent all abortions, a well-planned strategy designed by a veterinarian and cattle producer working together to target the most important risks for each specific herd provides reasonable protection against devastating pregnancy losses. The best herd health plan to prevent abortion losses is the plan that optimizes nutrition, biosecurity, vaccination protocols, and grazing management for your herd. 

Planning Winter Supplementation

For most of the U.S. and Canada, winter feed is one of the greatest costs of cow-calf production. The base ingredient in winter rations is usually standing dormant forage or hay. Heifers, fist-calf heifers, and thin cows that need to gain body condition often need more energy than can be supplied by dormant forage or hay alone. Therefore, many situations require that heifers and cows be fed supplemental protein, energy, or both, depending on the nutrient makeup of the base-forage. Understanding the interaction between starch, fiber, and protein in the cows’ rumen allows producers to determine the most appropriate winter supplement. 

Many different types of bacteria and other microorganisms in the rumen convert forage and supplements into nutrients needed to maintain or increase a cow’s body weight. What makes cattle and other ruminant animals so important to the earth’s ecosystem is that a great deal of the energy stored on the planet is stored in the fibrous parts of plants that cannot be used by non-ruminants (humans, birds, and most animals). In addition, it is important to recognize that even cattle and other ruminants can only use the energy stored in the cell walls of plants when the rumen bacteria have enough protein and other nutrients to actively breakdown the fibrous plant parts. Fiber-digesting bacteria, which are important for digesting forage, are relatively slow growing and are easily killed if the rumen becomes acidic. In contrast, starch-digesting bacteria are important to grain-fed ruminants, and reproduce rapidly when starch is available. Starch-digesting bacteria have a much greater tolerance for increased acid in the rumen than do fiber-digesting bacteria. 

Changes in diet will change which types of bacteria in the rumen are most plentiful. The types of supplements that cattlemen choose to feed will affect the types of bacteria that dominate the rumen which will have an effect on how well cows can convert the base forage into body weight. Some supplements will increase the digestibility of the base forage, some will not greatly affect the base forage digestibility, and some will actually decrease the ability of cows to convert forage into body weight.  

Cattle fed a forage-based diet (grazing or hay) that is deficient in protein (<7% Crude Protein) will benefit by being fed a protein-dense supplement to supply the necessary amount required for reproduction by fiber-digesting bacteria. By increasing the number of fiber-digesting bacteria in the rumen, forage digestibility is increased, the cows’ eat more forage, and the energy yield from the diet is improved.  

However, producers should realize that if the base forage has adequate protein content, additional protein will not improve digestibility or energy yield. A typical 1,200-pound cow of average producing ability will need only about 1.7 pounds of crude protein during the middle part of gestation. Feeding a roughage of fair quality (8 to 10% crude protein) during this period should meet both energy and protein requirements, and feeding a protein supplement is not necessary. In contrast, after a cow calves, her requirement for protein increases greatly. A 1,200-pound cow producing 20 pounds of milk requires 3 pounds of crude protein daily and a forage that was adequate in mid-gestation may be very protein deficient for late gestation and early lactation. 

Because of the competition that takes place in the rumen between starch-digesting and fiber-digesting bacteria, it is important to limit the amount of grain in the diet of cows grazing standing dormant forage or eating hay. If cows are eating forage of moderate quality (protein content and digestibility), supplementing with too much grain, which is high in starch, will actually decrease the digestibility and available energy from the forage even further. This decrease is due to a shift in the population of rumen bacteria away from a population dominated by fiber-digesters, to a population dominated by starch-digesters. Remember, the starch-digesting bacteria can reproduce rapidly when starch is available, and during rapid growth, starch-digesting bacteria produce increasing levels of lactic acid, which will kill many fiber-digesting bacteria. With fewer fiber-digesting bacteria available, forage digestibility is decreased and energy yield from the forage is reduced.  

Because corn and other grains are readily available and often are price-competitive with other sources of energy, producers can use these feeds up to the level where they have a negative effect on fiber digestion. The cut-off for starch supplementation of low-quality forages calculates to be about 0.28% of the cows’ bodyweight for corn dry matter (3.5-4.0 lbs. of corn as-fed for a 1,200-pound cow). For moderate weight gain, a simple diet of forage and less than 3.5-4.0 pounds corn will often be sufficient.  

In situations when the base forage has adequate protein, if more weight gain is required than can be met with a starch-based feed such as corn without a negative effect on forage intake and digestibility, producers can choose to use a fiber-based feed that has higher energy content than the base forage. Many by-product feeds provide energy in the form of highly digestible fiber; because the energy is in the same form as that in the forage, high levels can be fed without harming the fiber-digesting bacteria in the rumen or decreasing forage digestibility. By-product feeds that provide energy in the form of highly digestible fiber include: corn gluten feed, distillers grains, soybean hulls, and wheat middlings.  

Working with your veterinarian, nutritionist, Extension specialist, or other ration-planning resource to help you properly select the type and amount of supplement that compliments your base forage will ensure that your cows maintain adequate body condition and that winter feeding bills are optimized. 

Weaning Beef Calves

The times in a beef animal’s life that it is most at risk for disease or death are at birth and the first few weeks of life, and again for the first few weeks after weaning. This is particularly true if newly weaned cattle are commingled with other cattle and shipped to a new location. There are several strategies that ranchers and veterinarians can utilize to reduce risk of disease associated with the changes that accompany weaning.  

At weaning, milk is removed a calf’s diet. For many beef calves, this is a relatively minor change in diet composition because by the time calves are weaned at six months of age or older, they are already consuming a majority of their nutrients from grazing and their dam’s milk production is declining rapidly. But a change in diet is not the only change associated with weaning, in that the social interaction between the dam and calf is also changed.  

The reason that weaning is associated with increased risk for disease in calves is that stress strongly suppresses the immune system, making the calf susceptible to the germs and parasites that are commonly found in nature. Sudden diet change, separation from dams, castration, vaccinations, and moving to a new location are all potential sources of stress for weaned calves.  

There are many different ways to reduce the stress associated with weaning-age calf management. Every rancher should look at his/her own facilities and marketing plan to come up with the best strategy for their operation. Basically, optimum weaning strategies are planned to avoid having multiple additional stressors happen at the same time as weaning, and to reduce the stress of weaning itself.  

Near the time of weaning, calves are often moved to new environments and commingled with new cattle from the same ranch or from multiple ranches. Because of these changes, calves are likely to contact germs that are new to them. A vaccination strategy to prepare the immune system of calves ahead of exposure to common disease-causing germs is helpful to decrease the risk of disease. No vaccine is able to provide complete protection from disease, but vaccines that are given at times of significant stress are much less likely to provide adequate disease protection compared to vaccines given to calves that are not coping with other stressors.  

Pre-conditioning programs have been developed to move stressful management processes such as castration, dehorning, and vaccination earlier in a calf’s life to reduce any adverse health impacts of those procedures, and to move these stressors to times away from weaning. In addition, if grain or grain by-products are part of the post-weaning diet, preconditioning programs usually recommend or require that for two to three weeks before weaning, calves are exposed to the type of diet they will be expected to consume after weaning. The post-weaning diet must ensure that calves receive adequate energy, protein, and trace nutrients to support a strong immune system and to maintain or increase growth rate. 

The timing of weaning is affected by many factors including the ranch’s calf marketing strategy and the availability of adequate forage to maintain cow health and productivity. If drought conditions reduce available forage so that cow body condition and calf growth are meaningfully affected, calves can be weaned at an early age to remove calf-grazing and lactation pressures on forage intake by the herd. Beef calves can be successfully weaned any time after they develop a functioning rumen at a few weeks of age.  

There are several broad categories of weaning strategies such as: fence-line weaning in the current pasture where cows are kept in view but not in contact with the calves, pasture-weaning in the current pasture with the cows moved completely out of contact, and weaning to a drylot with cow herd contact. 

A few research studies have compared fence-line weaning where calves can see their dams but are separated by a fence, to other strategies that involved weaning on pasture with the dams completely removed or weaning into a dry lot with no contact with cows. These studies generally show improvements in calf behavior such as bawling and pacing for the first few days after weaning for fence-line weaned calves. Some, but not all studies, show differences in disease risk and weight gain based on the weaning strategy used. Management practices to decrease the stress associated with weaning should be investigated and ranch-specific strategies that optimize health, welfare, and economic considerations should be implemented. 

If calves are weaned into a new environment such as a drylot, it is important that they have access to plenty of fresh water and that they know how to find and drink from the water source. Calves that have only been provided water from streams or ponds may not recognize tanks and controlled-flow waterers. Feed bunks, hay rings, and water sources must all be accessible to calves. Many of these feeding devices are designed for yearlings or adults and may be difficult for calves to use. Many newly weaned calves will not aggressively approach crowded feed bunks; therefore it is recommended that feed be spread out over 18 to 22 inches of bunk space per calf.  

No matter what strategy is used, weather should be an important consideration when choosing the day of weaning. Although not perfect, a multi-day weather forecast can help you avoid adding weather stress to the other stresses of weaning. The greatest risk of disease for weaning-age calves is during the first three weeks after they are separated from their dams. During this time, the calves should be observed frequently (usually twice a day) for signs of respiratory disease, diarrhea, lameness, or failure to gain weight. Work closely with your veterinarian to develop a treatment plan for the types of problems you may encounter.  

Although weaning is associated with increased disease risk, a herd-specific plan to implement management practices such as castration, dehorning, and vaccination while calves are still with their dams; and then using weather reports and low-stress weaning strategies to minimize the stress of weaning, you can protect calf health and growth during this critical time. Your veterinarian, extension agent, university personnel, and neighbors may have ideas that you can implement to improve weaning on your farm or ranch. 

Treatment Protocols

In many food animal production systems, treatment protocols are an important component of maintaining herd health.  A treatment protocol is the veterinarian’s instruction for disease management and can be developed within the context of a veterinary-client-patient relationship.  A well-designed treatment protocol should include: 

  • Case definition  
    • Signs/symptoms that indicate the animal has met the requirements for receiving treatment 
  • Drug regimen – administration instructions that specify: 
    • The drug 
    • Dose to be administered 
    • Route of drug administration 
    • Site of drug administration (drug label or BQA guidelines) 
    • Maximum volume of drug administered per injection site 
    • Needle size 
    • Frequency of administration (examples: single injection or every 12 hrs) 
    • Treatment duration 
  • Treatment success/failure criteria 
    • Indicators that the animal requires additional treatment 
  • Secondary/additional treatments 
    • Drug regimen details as above 
  • Instructions for disposition of treated animals 
    • Withdrawal time for meat (and milk if used in lactating dairy cows) 
    • Salvage slaughter vs. euthanasia for treatment failures 

The treatment protocol should be agreed upon by farm personnel and the veterinarian.  By sticking to the protocol, it ensures the best treatment outcomes and allows for evaluation of treatment effectiveness.  While a change in protocol may be necessary in rare cases, this should only be done after consultation with your veterinarian. 


Beef cattle producers typically own several different types of animal health equipment. A few important considerations are: obtaining good quality equipment, focusing on cleanliness, and making sure that all equipment is well-maintained.  Some common animal health equipment likely to be found on many ranches includes: portable squeeze chutes and handling facilities, scales to collect body weight, warming crates for calves born in cold conditions, AI (artificial insemination) supplies, calving chains and calf jacks for use in cases of calving difficulty, ear tag pliers, tattoo pliers, castration and dehorning tools, and syringes and needles. 

While it is important to search for value when purchasing animal health equipment, equipment that breaks easily or that won’t reliably perform its function is never a bargain no matter what the purchase price. If high-priced equipment is needed only rarely, finding a source that can lease it on an as-needed basis may be preferable to purchasing. Buying needed supplies and equipment from local sources has the advantages of convenience and knowing who will stand behind the equipment they sell. Online suppliers and large outlets have the advantage of a large inventory and wide selection. The best source for your equipment needs will depend on your geographic area and your priorities.  

Keeping equipment clean is almost always good advice, but cleanliness for animal health equipment is especially important. Many types of equipment will come with manufacturers’ recommendations for cleaning and it is always important to follow these directions. In general, washing with hot water, soap, and appropriate brushes or other utensils is usually a good place to start. For some animal health equipment, it is recommended to use a disinfectant to remove germs once the item is clean of all dirt and other debris. It is important to recognize that disinfectants wont’ work in the presence of dirt, manure, or blood so a good cleaning is always the first step. Because cleaning and disinfecting detergents can easily destroy the ability of vaccines to work effectively, thoroughly cleaning reusable syringes followed by boiling them in water will kill any germs on the equipment without leaving a residue that can harm vaccines. Needles should not be cleaned and re-used – instead use disposable needles.  Always clean syringes between uses; it is important to not use a syringe for one product followed by another product without a thorough cleaning in between uses.  

Previously used needles should never be used to withdraw vaccine from the bottle. This should only be done with a brand new needle to prevent contaminating the contents of the bottle. For rehydrating the freeze-dried portion of a modified live vaccine with the provided liquid, ideally, a double-sided transfer needle should be used. If a transfer needle is not available, you should use a new needle and syringe.  

There are diseases of cattle that can be spread by very small amounts of blood – even the trace of blood left on tattoo pliers, tagging instruments, castrating knives, and injection needles. To help prevent the spread of anaplasmosis and bovine leukosis, instruments that contact blood should be rinsed or wiped off between uses to remove all traces of blood.  

Maintenance and service instructions provided with new equipment should be followed to ensure that your equipment is ready to use when you need it. All equipment should be examined closely for signs of wear or problems than you can address, and to recognize when you need to send equipment to an expert for repair. Some equipment needs routine lubrication or sharpening and having all the materials you need to keep you equipment in good working order is important. For items that may break during routine use, having at least one back-up is probably a good idea.  

Cleaning and maintaining animal health equipment are important considerations when implementing BQA (Beef Quality Assurance) on your cattle operation. This includes proper care and use of syringes and needles to prevent injection site problems, keeping animal handling equipment in good working condition to prevent bruising or injury, and having clean, reliable equipment for use when assisting difficult births or dealing with other health emergencies to ensure good animal care and welfare.  

Animal health equipment is one of many considerations when providing good care for your cattle. Taking a little time to consider what equipment you need, how you will keep it clean, and the best methods to make sure it is well-maintained will serve you well as you go about the daily tasks of caring for your herd.  

Cattle Lameness

Lameness in cows, bulls, and replacement heifers is a common problem confronting cattlemen. In most situations, the problem is occurring in the foot, with occasional lesions in the shoulders, hips, knees, and other joints. Problems in the foot can be due to injury, infections, malformations of the foot, or a combination of these factors.  

One of the most common problems of cattle feet is an infection of the skin and soft tissue above the hoof known as footrot. The bacteria that causes footrot is present in soil and is very common in cattle pens. In order for the bacteria to invade the foot, a break in the skin must occur first. Injury that allows infection may be due to rocks or rough ground, crop residue stubble, or extreme dryness. Wet and muddy areas can also be a problem in that prolonged exposure to wet ground can cause the skin to become soft and more easily injured. All lame cattle should be confined in a squeeze chute where the foot can be lifted and carefully examined to make an accurate diagnosis. It is very easy to mistake a puncture wound or other problem for footrot. If identified early in the course of the disease, most cattle will respond to treatment with antibiotics with complete recovery. If the infection has had longer to invade nearby joints, recovery is less likely. Prevention of outbreaks of footrot is primarily directed toward maintaining clean pens and designing watering and feeding areas to prevent the build up mud. Occasional, individual cases of footrot are probably unavoidable and these sporadic cases should be identified and treated as soon as possible. Use of feed additives such as iodine and antibiotics have not consistently shown to be beneficial for preventing footrot.  

A disease called hairy heel warts or digital dermatitis can also occur on the feet of cattle. Most commonly, a painful raw area that can look like a wart and may have long hair-like growths is identified directly behind the heels, but the area between the toes can also be affected. This disease is common in dairy cattle herds and although it is rare in cow-calf herds, it does occur in feedlot cattle and beef cattle that are housed in a drylot or on concrete. The current theory is that two or more germs work together to cause the disease and that these organisms thrive in manure-contaminated water. Housing that minimizes the time spent standing in water is the best prevention. Footbaths with antibiotics are used for treatment in dairies.   

Lameness in cattle can also be caused by infections in and around joints by bacteria that have traveled from other infections in the body. Mycoplasma bovis is an organism that is found in the lungs of some cattle with prolonged cases of pneumonia. This organism can travel through the bloodstream and infect joints and tendons causing severe lameness. Many antibiotics do not kill the organism and treatment of cattle with lameness due to Mycoplasma bovis is often not successful.  

Lameness can be caused by injuries to the foot or leg. Puncture wounds from nails, glass, or sharp pieces of metal can cause damage to the hoof itself or to the soft tissue around the hoof. Puncture wounds are often accompanied by a great deal of swelling and may appear similar to footrot. Damaged or poorly maintained loading chutes, alleys, or fences with sharp protrusions can also injure feet and legs.  

Toe abscess are most common in calves in confinement, particularly where sorting pens are abrasive and the cattle have soft hooves. Acidosis may also be a factor, and excitable behavior is considered to increase the risk that cattle may scramble on the concrete of the treatment or processing areas causing abrasions of their toes, which allows infections to occur. Toe abscesses are treated by nipping off the tip of the toe to allow drainage, administering antibiotics, and placing the cattle in areas with clean, solid footing. Sole abscesses are less common, but more difficult to treat than toe abscesses. The sole must be trimmed and the abscess opened to allow drainage and a wooden block is glued to the opposite toe to keep the affected toe from bearing weight. Sole abscesses are most common on the inside toes of the front legs and the outside toes of the back legs and may be related to incidences of acidosis. Laminitis is the foot problem most commonly associated with acidosis. In most cases of laminitis, the cattle on are on a high-concentrate diets or on stalk fields with a lot of residual grain. Severe cases of laminitis in cowherds will result in the animal being culled. 

Structural soundness occurs in varying degrees and structural problems can cause lameness. Pigeon toes, long toes, and straight hocks are examples of some of the more common structural problems. Corkscrew hoof is a genetic problem and any animal with the condition should be culled from the breeding herd. The hind leg should have an acceptable set to the hock as viewed from the side. The range of acceptability is 120° to 155° with the ideal of 140°. The post-legged condition, when rear legs have a greater than 155° set to the hock, is a fairly common and serious skeletal defect in beef cattle. Exceptionally straight hind legs are often associated with steep pasterns and straight shoulders. The bow-legged condition of hind legs is associated with a narrow placement of the feet and a disproportionate amount of weight on the outside claw, which can lead to lameness. When evaluating front limb structure, cattle should have an adequate slope to the shoulder (45°-50°) and the legs should be acceptably straight when viewed from the side and front. Front legs that bow inward at the knees up to 10° are considered acceptable but, knees that bow outward even slightly are unacceptable.  

Cattle lameness due to footrot can usually be corrected with timely and appropriate therapy. Other infectious problems such as digital dermatitis and toe or sole abscesses are more difficult to manage, but many affected cattle can be successfully treated. Malformations in the legs or toes often have a genetic component and although treatment such as corrective foot trimming can make the cattle more comfortable, no long-term cure is available. Whenever cattle become lame, it is almost always a good idea to confine the affected animal in a squeeze chute or tilt-table that allows thorough examination so that an accurate diagnosis can be make and appropriate treatment initiated.  

Cow Herd Mineral Supplementation

When I think about meeting the nutritional needs of beef cow-calf herds, I fist focus on the ability of the base forage to meet the energy and protein needs of the various groups of cattle on the ranch that differ by age and lactation status. But another aspect of nutrition that must also be considered is the mineral content of the diet. The minerals available from grazed and harvested forages and feed depend greatly on the soil on which it is grown as well as the type of plant being consumed. Because of the importance that soil plays in the availability of many minerals, supplementation needs can vary greatly across North America. In addition, mineral needs (particularly calcium and phosphorus) will increase somewhat in late gestation and to a greater extent during lactation compared to non-lactating cattle (heifers, dry cows, bulls). 

Several minerals are necessary in beef cattle diets to maintain optimum health, reproduction, and growth. Minerals needed in relatively large amounts are described as major or macro minerals while minerals needed in small amounts are usually called micro or trace minerals. The major minerals that most commonly need to be supplemented in beef cattle diets are sodium (salt), calcium, and phosphorus, while magnesium and potassium are major minerals that require supplementation under certain circumstances. The six trace minerals that may be deficient in forage-based diets are copper, cobalt, iodine, selenium, zinc and manganese.

The mineral needed in the greatest amount in beef diets is salt (sodium chloride). Because salt is deficient in most natural feeds, it should be supplemented in all situations. The level of salt needed can vary depending on the diet, type of cattle, and environmental conditions, but a general rule is to supply 1 to 2 oz per day. 

Calcium and phosphorus are often considered together. Calcium content of grass decreases somewhat as forage matures and becomes dormant but often maintains levels that supply dietary needs throughout the year. Phosphorus, however, is leached out of dormant forage, so that by mid-winter levels are much lower than while forages are growing. Grains and many by-product feeds used to supplement cows on dormant forage such as wheat middlings, soybean products, distillers grains, and corn gluten feed have high phosphorus content that will likely provide sufficient levels in the diet. 

The Coastal Plain of Texas and other portions of the Gulf Coast, the Sandhills of Nebraska, Montana, as well as portions of Minnesota, North Dakota, and areas in numerous other states have phosphorus-deficient soils and diet supplementation should be a priority. In many other parts of the country, phosphorus deficiencies are seldom identified and phosphorus supplementation is not needed or can be strategically planned for period of high demand (late gestation and early lactation). 

Deficiency of magnesium is identified as a condition known as grass tetany. Observed most frequently in the early spring, grass tetany results from the consumption of lush forage, which has low levels of magnesium and sodium and has an excess of potassium. In addition to plant factors, grass tetany is associated with late pregnancy and early lactation due to the movement of calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium out of blood circulation and into the udder for milk production. During periods when grass tetany is a danger, a mineral mix with at least 18% magnesium needs to be offered. Because cattle do not like the taste of magnesium oxide, dry molasses or other flavor enhancers should be added to the mineral mix.

Minerals needed in small amounts are called trace minerals, and in most situations requirements are met with grazed forages or supplemental feedstuffs. But deficiencies or imbalances of trace minerals can occur when cattle grazing on some soil types consume plants that are either deficient in some important trace minerals or have excessive amounts of minerals that will tie-up or prevent the proper utilization of other minerals. For example, iron, molybdenum and other minerals, nitrate, sulfate, protein, and plant estrogens are known to reduce copper utilization. The first priority in trace mineral nutrition is to reduce the intake of antagonists in order to minimize the amount of supplemental mineral required. This may be accomplished by changing water sources, rotating pastures so that animals are not on pastures with high levels of antagonists for long periods of time, or changing harvested forage sources.  

Commercial mineral supplements are widely available and will meet the needs of most classes of cattle. The amount of each mineral provided by commercial products must be printed on the label. In some situations (due to concentrate feeds used and soil type), no commercial supplement is available to perfectly meet a herd’s mineral needs. In these situations, custom-mixes can be created. In this circumstance, the supplier of the supplement will work with the producer to provide the proper level of minerals based on analysis of the animal’s diet. 

Salt and other minerals can be delivered to cattle in several forms. If possible, minerals can be mixed into hand-fed protein or energy supplements so that all cattle are more likely to receive their allotted amount. But, if no supplement is being fed or if it is difficult or impossible to add minerals to the supplement, salt/mineral can be offered free-choice in a loose granular form or as a block or tub (or other solid or semi-solid form). All free-choice methods of mineral delivery will likely result in some cattle consuming far more and others far less than the desired amount. It has been reported that supplying salt/mineral in a loose form results in the highest intake, but because of loss to wind and weather or because of other convenience factors, a solid or semi-solid form may be more appropriate in some situations. Many commercial protein supplements – whether in a pellet, cake, tub or liquid form, have salt and other minerals added so that additional mineral supplementation is not needed. 

Because cows do not have the nutritional wisdom to consume the proper amount of free-choice mineral supplement to meet their dietary requirement or to avoid toxicity, it is important to monitor mineral intake. Determining the amount of mineral consumed over several days is necessary in order to know the herd’s average consumption. If consumption is too low, feed intake enhancers such as dry molasses, wheat mids, cottonseed meal or flavoring may be added. If consumption is too high, salt may be used to limit intake to desired levels. 

Being a Good Neighbor from a Cattle Health Standpoint

Being a good neighbor (and having good neighbors) is an important consideration when planning your overall herd health strategy. The impact that neighboring cattle can have on the health of your herd depends on the level of contact, the specific disease in question, and the timing of contact between herds. Nearby herds that can impact your herd’s health can range from herds comingled with yours for grazing purposes, to herds with fence-line contact with your herd, to herds with no direct contact with your cattle but within a distance that escaped cattle, wildlife, humans, and air- and water-flow could move disease-causing agents between herds. For most disease risks, more frequent and long-lasting exposure between herds carries greater risk than very occasional or short-term contact. However, even short-term contact between herds can lead to serious health problems if the exposure occurs during a time in pregnancy when either the dam or fetus is particularly vulnerable, or at an animal-age or time of year when a particular disease causes the most problems.  

Viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms can cause disease when the dose of disease-causing agents overwhelms the ability of cattle to fight them. Cattle herds can fail to build good immunity to some diseases either because of certain characteristics of the germs themselves or because some disease-causing germs are rarely found in herds and herds are unlikely to build long-term immunity against germs they don’t contact. In these situations, even a small exposure may lead to many cattle becoming sick, aborting their fetuses, or having other negative consequences; and contact between herds increases this risk. In contrast, some disease-causing agents are so common in cattle populations that it is unlikely that any one herd is completely free of the organism – so contact between herds does not greatly increase the risk of many common diseases. 

The germs that cause trichomoniasis (Trich) and bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) are examples whereby most herds are susceptible to major disease problems if exposed to cattle that carry these germs. One of the common ways to expose a herd to these diseases is by contact with neighboring herds. Other diseases such as anaplasmosis are common in many parts of the country but rare in other parts – therefore contact with neighboring herds can increase the risk for these diseases in some areas but not in other areas. And diseases such as bovine leukosis, neosporosis, and the agents that cause bovine respiratory disease and calf scours are so common that contact between herds would rarely increase the disease risk in herds that are already infected.

It is important to work with your veterinarian to devise an appropriate plan to keep your herd from being exposed to cattle that carry Trich and BVD organisms. You should also work with your veterinarian to implement a strategy to limit the negative effects of bovine respiratory disease, calf scours, and other common diseases even though you will not be able to eliminate or keep the germs associated with these diseases from your herd. 

A few diseases can be passed even after cattle have died; therefore, proper carcass disposal to prevent direct contact with other cattle, spread of organisms by scavengers such as coyotes and birds, and contamination of water or soil that other animals may contact is necessary to be a good neighbor. Your veterinarian, Extension agent, or local regulatory contacts can provide you with information about proper carcass disposal. 

Being a good neighbor also means that you control flies as well as toxic plants and weeds that can move from one cattle operation to another. In many situations, pest control can only be effective if all the agriculture operations in the area implement control measures; and all operations benefit from the efforts of others in the area. But even as pesticides and other chemicals intended for use on plants and animals can be important weapons to control disease and improve animal health, they also pose a toxic risk if they are not applied or disposed of properly. It is important that everyone using farm chemicals is properly trained on how chemicals should be applied to animals, plants, and premises, and also how they should be stored so that animals are not accidentally exposed to concentrated, toxic doses, and how to safely dispose of any residues and the empty containers. 

In summary, being a good neighbor from an animal health perspective involves having good pasture management, animal husbandry, and animal health skills. Specifically, good neighbors use effective pest control, maintain good fences to limit unintended cross-fence exposure, and work with a veterinarian to implement vaccination and biosecurity plans for diseases that can move from one herd to another to provide protection not only to your own herd, but to decrease disease risk for other herds in the area. 

Cattle Handling Facilities

Many animal health interventions require that cattle be gathered to a handling facility that allows individual animals to be separated from the rest of the herd and confined in a squeeze chute. In situations where all the cattle in a pasture or pen are healthy and are going to be handled to give animal health products such as vaccines or parasite control, or to monitor body condition score or pregnancy status, the facilities have to be large enough to accommodate all the cattle in the group. When a few cattle from the herd need to be examined or treated for disease, the facilities have to allow safe and efficient separation of the desired animals from the rest of the herd and then adequate restraint in a squeeze chute to allow access for close inspection of areas on the animal’s body that require treatment. Cattle should be able to be moved from the pasture or pen to the working area and through the handling facilities with a minimum of stress to both the cattle and producer.

Because cattle are prey animals and can easily react to contact with people and dogs with a ‘fight or flight’ response, it is important to prevent cattle from becoming agitated when being handled. Cattle are herd animals and tend to become fearful when left alone. Strategies to minimize fear include moving cattle slowly and quietly and always moving cattle in small groups. Do not use dogs to move cattle in confinement, and minimize the use of electric cattle prods. Because cattle balk at moving or flapping objects, the crowding pens, single-file alley, and loading ramp should be monitored to make sure that nothing within the line of sight could cause them to react. As cattle are moved from the pasture or pen toward the working facility, do not over-crowd them. Never fill the crowd pen – rather only add enough cattle to be about one-half of capacity, and then do not “crush” the cattle with the crowd gate to force them into the single-file alley. The crowd gate is used to follow the cattle, not to shove up against them. Cattle should have room to move around in the crowd pen with the only visible route of escape being the alley. If a lone animal refuses to move, release it and bring it back with another group.

Cattle have excellent wide-angle vision (in excess of 300 degrees) due to the wide position of their eyes and can see behind themselves without turning their heads. And while cattle do have depth perception, they have difficulty seeing the size and shape of objects at ground level when their heads are raised. To see depth near the ground, cattle have to lower their head, perhaps explaining why cattle balk at distractions at ground level. Because contrasting patterns caused by fence or panel shadows will cause balking, lighting considerations are important for moving cattle smoothly through handling facilities. In addition, cattle in a dark area will move towards a dim light but they tend to balk if they have to look into the sun or a bright light. Because cattle may refuse to enter a dark, indoor working alley from a bright, outside crowding pen, it may be necessary to extend the alley outside the building or to cover the crowding area to prevent sharp contrasts in lighting that cause cattle to balk at important points in the handling facility.

Cattle like to maintain visual contact with each other, so in most situations, the single-file alley leading up to the squeeze chute should be at least 20 ft. long (30 to 50 ft. for larger facilities) to allow each animal to see others ahead of it. Don’t force an animal into a single-file alley unless there is plenty of room. If cattle see a dead-end, they will most likely balk, therefore, blocking gates in a single-file alley need to be “see through” so cattle can see the animals ahead.

To protect all the people handling cattle, the corrals, working facilities and chutes must be in good repair and must match the operation and cattle. Gate latches and latches on the squeeze chute (head-catch and squeeze) must have scheduled, proper maintenance because slipped latches are very dangerous. All persons using the squeeze chute should know where the pinch points are, and the arc of movement of squeeze bars and head catch handles. Pipes slid behind cattle to serve as a back-stop are dangerous because an animal moving either forward or backward rapidly before the pipe is fully engaged can trap a person between the pipe and the side of the alley or chute. And to prevent being injured directly by an animal, do not get in the crowding area or alley. Also, the working area should be easy to clean and provide non-slip flooring in the crowd pens, alleys, chutes, and the exit from the chute.

While good working facility design, construction, and maintenance are important for safe and efficient cattle handling, the people handling the cattle probably have the greatest impact on the level of stress inflicted on the cattle and handlers and the ease that cattle move through a facility. Most cattle producers know of people who handle cattle particularly well (as well as people at the opposite extreme). We use terms like cow-sense, common-sense, or stockmanship to describe people who are able to observe cattle behavior accurately and then respond to that behavior so that cattle move exactly where the handler wants them to move. Although there may be some in-born personality traits or skills that make some people naturally better cattle handlers, good cattle-handling training that emphasizes unlearning bad habits and learning low-stress cattle handling habits can benefit anyone who routinely works with cattle.

            It is easy to recognize that handling cattle is required for many, if not most, animal health procedures. In order for health and production management interventions to provide the greatest benefit to a cattle herd, the cattle must be handled through good facilities quietly, efficiently, and with minimal stress.

Commitment to Excellence in Herd Health

Bob L. Larson, DVM, PhD
Beef Cattle Institute
Kansas State University

Beef producers have many demands on their time and attention. One of those demands is to achieve excellent health for their herd. In general, cattle can remain healthy in a wide variety of environments and when under a variety of stresses. However, young calves, cows around the time of calving, and cows and their fetuses in the early stages of pregnancy are more at-risk for experiencing health problems than cattle of other ages. In addition, individuals or herds that have to deal with more than one problem at the same time can have severe health problems.

In my opinion, the secret to excellence in herd health is to focus on time-tested aspects of animal husbandry while utilizing some aspects of more modern technology.  The term “animal husbandry” may have gone out of favor in some circles, but it describes the care and feeding of livestock based on good observation skills and a daily commitment to the health and welfare of the animals. Focusing on maintaining good forage availability, good body condition of cattle, and a clean environment that allows for protection from severe weather and predators are long-standing attributes of the best cattle producers. In the past century, additional tools have become available to help improve cattle health. These include advancements in forage management, feed evaluation, internal and external parasite control, vaccines for disease prevention and control, tests for the identification of cattle carrying contagious organisms, and genetic selection to reduce the risk of calving difficulty and other common problems. Combining these modern technologies with age-old husbandry skills allows today’s beef producer to achieve a level of health for their cattle herds that was not possible in the past.

Good cowherd nutrition is built on the foundation of good forage production and management. Abundant growing grass is a fantastic feed that usually results in excellent health of grazing cattle. Cattle can use a wide variety of plants for a healthy diet, but if drought or over-stocking reduces the amount of forage that cattle can consume, health problems are likely to follow. All forages are deficient in salt and providing salt throughout the year is necessary in all parts of the U.S. In addition, other minerals are also needed in cattle diets, but in many areas the available forages provide all or most of a herd’s other mineral needs. In areas or pastures with known mineral deficiencies, specific minerals such as phosphorus, copper, zinc, selenium, or other minerals will need to be supplied. During the winter or other times of the year when forage is dormant, protein and other nutrients may need to be supplemented to ensure that the herd is receiving an adequate diet to maintain body weight and optimum health. Research at universities and other locations over the past several decades have provided nutritionists and veterinarians with valuable information and tools to balance forage-based diets for cattle at the different stages of production such as growth, pregnancy, and lactation.

In addition to a commitment to provide adequate forage and supplements, the other aspect of animal husbandry excellence that has been passed down through the ages is to provide an environment that is clean and gives protection from weather and other stresses. Because cattle are housed outdoors, the natural occurrences of dust and mud are not completely avoidable; but throughout time, the best animal caretakers provided excellent environments for their cattle given the rainfall, snow storms, and other weather events that are common for their area. The best mud-control strategies for cattle on pasture is to make sure that cattle spread out and do not congregate in an area where the combination of rainwater or snow-melt and the hoof action of cattle result in deep mud. The amount of space needed to minimize the risk of problems due to mud will depend on the expected rainfall patterns for an area. Making sure that shelter as well as water, salt, and feed sources are spread to various parts of a pasture will keep cattle from spending too much time as a group in a small area. Mud control strategies for cattle that are housed in drylots include good design and construction of pens to allow water drainage, and frequent scraping to maintain a good pen surface. In areas of the country that can experience severe winter storms, cattle need to be able to find natural or man-made wind-breaks and to have access to areas with good draining that are free of standing water and mud.

One of the greatest advancements for cattle and cattle producers that modern technology has provided has been in the area of parasite control. Throughout history, worms (or internal parasites) and flies and other insects have caused tremendous discomfort, disease risk, and production loss for cattle. Appropriate use of chemicals to interfere with the life-cycles of parasites allows cattle producers to remove much of the negative effect of these pests. Because parasites are very numerous and have the ability to adapt to changing environments and risks, they continue to cause health and production problems. Internal parasites cause more severe problems in young cattle and in cattle that live in warmer parts of the country that have larger parasite populations because they lack the benefit of killing winter temperatures. By working closely with a veterinarian, cattle producers can implement strategies to control parasites for the short-term while making sure that they don’t contribute to the development of pests that resist chemical control.

The knowledge and technologies that make accurate EPDs possible provide a tremendous benefit to cattle producers by giving them tools to reduce the risk of calving difficulty. The period of time with the greatest risk for both calves and their dams is at and shortly after calving. Difficult births cause direct problems for both the dam and the calf and even if a calf survives a difficult birth, the stress of that event as well as reduced colostrum intake combine to increase his risk of death due to scours, navel ill, or pneumonia during the first few months of life. Through good bull selection and heifer selection and development, modern beef producers have tools to reduce the risk of difficult calving that earlier generations would envy.

And finally, an over-arching strategy to achieve excellence in herd health includes using vaccines to reduce the risk and severity of some important cattle diseases, and antibiotics and other modern drugs to treat illnesses and injuries that affect cattle. These advancements in disease treatment and prevention options are valuable, but they must be used correctly and as enhancements and not replacements for good cattle husbandry.  Following Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) guidelines to ensure that all products are administered using the proper injection sites, injection routes (under the skin, in the muscle, into the vein, etc.), dosages, and withdrawal times is a critical step when beef producer commit to excellence in herd health.

Young Bull Health Considerations

Seedstock producers, bull buyers, and veterinarians all have considerable interest in the breeding ability of yearling bulls and the ability of a breeding soundness examination to accurately predict that ability. It is expected that there will be a lot of variability among young bulls, but in general by about 10 to 11 months of age, bulls will reach puberty.  At puberty, sperm cells can be detected in a semen sample, but production is limited and many sperm cells will have one or more defects and the bull would not pass a breeding soundness examination. As bulls age past puberty, sperm production steadily increases and the percentage of abnormal sperm cells in a semen sample will decrease until the age of 16 months when bulls should be sexually mature. Daily sperm production will increase until a bull is about 3 to 4 years of age when testicular weight peaks.

Breeding soundness examinations consist of a complete physical, scrotal measurement as an indication of testicular size, and a semen evaluation. The need for breeding soundness examination of bulls is based on the fact that many prospective breeding bulls are infertile, subfertile, or unable to successfully mate. The physical examination includes observing the bull as he moves – looking for inadequacies in movement, leg conformation, and general body condition. The physical examination continues once the bull is confined in a squeeze chute – noting any abnormal conformation. The lungs and heart are evaluated and a rectal exam is performed to determine the health of internal reproductive organs. The penis should be extended and examined for indications of injury, warts, persistent frenulum, or disease. The testes and epididymis are palpated for evidence of degeneration or inflammation.

An easily obtained and important measurement for evaluating young bulls is the scrotal circumference. Although bulls will reach puberty at wide range of ages and weights, bulls of all breeds tend to reach puberty when the scrotal circumference is pretty close to 28 cm. Remember that a bull that has just recently reached puberty will produce very few fertile sperm cells and he would not be expected to successfully breed more than a few heifers or cows. Typically, young bulls between 10 and 16 months are described as “yearlings” but testicular size and scrotal circumference increases rapidly during this period so it would not be appropriate to directly compare young bulls that differ in age even by as little as a month.

Once the physical examination is complete and the scrotal circumference has been determined with a tape measure, a semen sample is collected either with the aid of an electroejaculator, massage of the prostate, or use of an artificial vagina and a mount animal. The semen sample is evaluated for sperm motility and for the presence of excessive numbers of abnormal sperm. Interpreting semen samples of young bulls less than 13 months of age can be difficult; and while bulls 10 to 13 months of age can be evaluated for scrotal circumference and physical soundness, some veterinarians and seedstock producers choose to delay evaluating sperm quality until a bull is 13 or 14 months of age. Bulls less than 13 months of age that have an excessive percentage of abnormal sperm may very well be too close to puberty and if allowed to mature a little longer will have more than 70% normal sperm cells and be considered a satisfactory breeder. However, if a 14 month old or older “yearling” bull fails a breeding soundness examination because of excessive numbers of abnormal sperm cells, it is fairly likely to fail a breeding soundness examination if tested again at 16 months of age.

Although there is still much to learn about the steps that should be taken to ensure that the greatest number of bull calves can become successful herd bulls, a number of studies have indicated that nutrition in the first few months of life prior to weaning has a tremendous impact on the age at puberty, mature testicular size (and scrotal circumference), and mature sperm production. Energy or protein restrictions in young suckling bulls (usually due to limited forage availability or poor dam milk production) can permanently reduce fertility. Another concern is that if young bulls suffer from any disease prior to weaning, the disruption of growth and health during critical periods of sexual maturation could have permanent negative effects on fertility. These concerns focus our attention on a herd health plan that includes good sanitation, nutrition, parasite control, biosecurity, and vaccinations to minimize the risk of disease.

In contrast to the importance of diets that are adequate for energy and protein very early in life, providing high levels of energy after weaning has not consistently shown any benefit to age a puberty or later fertility. In fact, if high energy diets post-weaning result in fat accumulation in the neck of the scrotum, fertility can be reduced, and bulls that become over-conditioned post-weaning are at increased risk of joint problems in their legs and possibly other problems.

A plan to ensure the health and adequate growth of bull calves prior to weaning and on through to yearling age is essential for optimum bull fertility. Because of the rapid changes that take place after a young bull reaches puberty, evaluating semen quality can be difficult and unproductive before a bull has had the opportunity to mature to the point where he can express his true fertility at about 13 to 14 months of age.

Navel Infection

As we prepare for spring calving, an important health concern in young calves is navel ill which can lead to joint ill. Navel ill occurs shortly after birth when bacteria from the environment or skin are able to enter the calf through the navel and cause an infection or abscess in the umbilical (navel) area. If the infection gets into the blood stream and spreads throughout the body, joints in the legs are likely to become infected and the problem becomes “join ill”.  

The bacteria that cause navel ill or joint ill are very common but are only likely to cause problems if the calf is born in a dirty environment or does not get enough colostrum. So, prevention of this problem focuses on avoiding calving in drylots (or mud lots) so that exposure is minimized, and by minimizing the risk of calving difficulty (particularly in heifers).  

In order for a calf to consume adequate amounts of colostrum, it must be able to stand, walk, find the dam’s teats, and suckle within six hours of birth and then suckle several times in the next 12 hours. In addition, the dam must stand, have a good maternal bond with the calf, and have teats that can be grasped by the calf. Calves born unassisted (i.e., without need of human intervention) stand more quickly, are more likely to bond with their dam, and have greater consumption of colostrum, compared to calves that required assistance during birth. Furthermore, calves requiring minimal assistance are at a substantial advantage compared to calves requiring more assistance during delivery. Proper heifer development and nutrition, use of calving-ease EPD bulls on heifers, and appropriate cow nutrition are good strategies to decrease the risk of calving difficulty. 

Despite the importance of adequate antibody passage, colostral intake is not the only factor that determines whether calves develop navel or joint ill. The other important factor that determines the number of sick calves and the severity of disease is the amount of exposure to disease-causing germs. The ideal location for calving is on well-drained pastures. If heifers or cows need to be moved to a drylot location for calving, extra attention should be given to improve sanitation and to treat the navel of newborn calves with iodine.  

To ensure that calves are born in a sanitary environment, pregnant cows and heifers should be moved from wintering pastures to a clean calving pasture just before start of the calving season. The calving area should be free of mud and should be protected from the wind. A large pasture with good drainage and a natural windbreak is probably all that is necessary for many mature herds. An additional factor that adds to the risk of infectious disease in young calves during severe weather is that cattle will often gather into a small area because of excessive snow or surface water or because of the practice of repeatedly placing feed and bedding in the same location. Producers may also intentionally move cattle into a small area in an attempt to provide them shelter from severe weather. These small areas rapidly become crowded and muddy, which leads to an increased possibility of navel or joint ill in the calves. 

Dipping the navel of newborn calves in iodine can be helpful if the calf is born in a dry-lot or other unsanitary area or if the calving was assisted. If calves are born on well-drained pastures and are experiencing very little calving difficulty, dipping navels is less important.  

Signs of navel or joint ill can occur as early as two days of age. If only the navel is involved, it will usually appear enlarged and wet. If the infection has moved into the blood stream, the calf may appear depressed, have lameness or swollen joints, have cloudy eyes, have a poor appetite or diarrhea, or have a fever. Early in the disease, the navel may not be enlarged. Other diseases and problem can have the same signs as navel ill, so often a veterinarian must examine the calf or calves involved to make a diagnosis. Treatment of calves with joint ill that also have signs of nervous system (brain or spinal cord) disease is not likely to be successful and euthanasia of the calf should be considered. Calves with more than one chronically infected joint as well as an infected navel also have a slight chance for recovery.  

If the infection is limited to the navel area and has not invaded any joints, treatment with antibiotics for several days and possibly surgical removal of the infected navel area have a good chance of being successful. If joints are involved and treatment is attempted, it must be aggressive by using approved broad-spectrum antibiotics for several days. Oral or IV fluids are given to treat and prevent dehydration. Other care may include heat lamps, adequate nutrition, clean, dry bedding areas, and possibly your veterinarian my flush the affected joints.  

When treatment is aggressive, the cost can be quite high. However, if the calf is severely affected, less-aggressive treatment is not likely to be successful. Obviously, prevention by decreasing calving difficulty and improving sanitation is preferable to death, production loss, or high treatment cost for affected calves.  

Vitamin A

Although I usually emphasize energy and protein intake when planning winter cow nutrition, ensuring adequate vitamin A intake is also important. Vitamin A is the vitamin most likely to be deficient in cattle diets and is the only vitamin with a well-defined requirement. It is important for vision, bone formation, growth, reproduction, and skin and other tissue health.

Cattle convert yellow and green pigments (carotene) in plants into vitamin A. Carotene is in all green plants and is plentiful in fresh, leafy forage but not found in high concentrations in many concentrate feeds. Cattle can store excess vitamin A in the liver for 2 to 4 months. This storage can serve as source when feeds are deficient. Because of this ability, cattle on green pasture can often store sufficient reserves to help meet their needs during the winter-feeding period when rations may be deficient.

            Large losses of carotene take place in the curing and storage of roughages. Hays that are cut in the bloom stage or earlier and cured without exposure to rain or excessive sun retain most of their original carotene content, while hay cut in the seed stage and exposed to rain or to extended periods of sunshine lose most of the carotene content. Hay rapidly cured with a drier only has a slight loss of carotene. The degree of greenness in roughage is a pretty good indicator of its carotene content. Both carotene and vitamin A are destroyed by oxidation, which can occur during feed storage. The stability of supplemental vitamin A has been increased by modern milling practices such as covering minute droplets of vitamin A with gelatin or wax or by adding an antioxidant to the feed.

            Vitamin A deficiency is most likely to occur when cattle are consuming a high concentrate diet, grazing dormant pasture or eating hay grown during drought conditions, eating feeds that have been stored for long periods of time, or when consuming a protein-deficient diet that is also low in vitamin A. Deficiencies can be corrected by increasing carotene intake by adding fresh, leafy, high-quality forages to the diet, by supplying vitamin A supplements in the feed, or by injection of vitamin A preparations.

The classic sign of vitamin A deficiency in cattle is night blindness (difficulty seeing in dim light) with total and permanent blindness possible in younger animals, and blindness in calves born to deficient dams. Excessive tearing (watery eyes) in cattle also occurs. Vitamin A deficiency can also be identified in animals with rough, dry, and faded hair coats, overgrown hooves that are dry and brittle, and hooves with multiple, vertical cracks. Vitamin A deficiency has also been identified as a cause of infertility in both females (delayed or lack of ovulation, silent heat, and early fetal loss) and bulls (abnormal semen). In addition, because vitamin A is important for the normal function of the tissues lining the respiratory tract, digestive tract, and the urinary tract; pneumonia, diarrhea, and urinary tract stones are also seen in cattle with vitamin A deficiency.

Although clearly identifiable cases of vitamin A deficiency are not particularly common, herds that do not reach their potential reproductive performance, growth rate, and health because of limited vitamin A in the diet are seen. Because the vitamin A activity in typical beef cattle rations is very unpredictable, the total requirement is usually added to the diet as a stabilized vitamin A product. Vitamin A palmitate and vitamin A acetate added to the feed provide relatively inexpensive supplementary sources. Vitamin A can also be given as an injection, with the vitamin being stored in the liver for a number of weeks. Vitamin A requirements for cattle range from 2,000 – 8,000 IU (international units) per 100 pounds of body weight. Growing cattle, lactating cows, and bulls require higher levels of vitamin A than mature dry cows. Vitamin A is very safe to use in cattle feed because toxicity is extremely rare.

            As we move into the winter months when most cow herds will be receiving rations composed of dormant or stored forages, vitamin A supplementation is one of the fist items to consider when planning an appropriate diet.

Monitoring Winter Body Condition

Cows in moderate body condition (BCS 5 to 6) usually require an average of about 55 to 65 days to resume fertile cycles after calving – meaning that mature cows that calve during the first 35 days of the calving season in moderate body condition should be cycling during the first 21 days of the next breeding season starts. In contrast, cows that calve with a BCS of less than 5 require more days to resume fertile cycles, and have very little chance of having fertile cycles by the start of the next breeding season – possibly not until late in the next breeding season.

Good body condition at calving is even more important for the reproductive performance of young cows that are nursing their first calves compared to mature cows because first-lactation cows often require 80 to 100 days to resume fertile cycles after calving. First-calf cows must have a BCS of 5 or greater (preferably 6) to have acceptable pregnancy rates for their second breeding season. In order to reach or maintain a BCS of 6 for first-lactation cows, they should be separated from the mature cowherd and fed to gain the needed weight.

During the winter months, most cattle in the U.S. are consuming dormant or baled forage. In most situations, the forage is poor to moderate in quality. When cattle graze marginal to low quality forages, supplemental protein or energy is often required to enhance either forage intake or animal performance. Poor quality forages (grazed or hay) have two negative effects on cow diets – the first effect is lower intake. While a 1250 pound cow will consume about 31 pounds (as fed) of moderate to good quality forage, she will only consume about 24 pounds of poor quality forage. The second negative effect is that the amount of energy per pound of intake is reduced compared to higher quality forage.

Because of year-to-year variation in forage quality and weather stress, cow body weight and condition can have important year-to-year variation even when fed what appears to be the same diet. Slightly lower forage quality and increased weather stress can result in cows losing more weight than expected. If cows lose condition over the winter so that that they enter the spring-calving season with a poor body condition, calf health and cow reproductive efficiency will be negatively affected.

In general, mature cows in good body condition that are not nursing a calf and that only need to maintain weight can over-winter on forage alone if forage quality is at least moderate and weather stress is low. If cows in good body condition are forced to consume lower-quality forage or if winter weather is harsh, supplemental high quality forage or concentrate will be required to maintain body weight. If cows are thin and need to gain body weight prior to calving, moderate quality forage will not supply the needed nutrients, and supplemental concentrate or high quality forage must be fed. If only poor quality forage is available, even greater levels of supplement must be fed to add body condition to thin cows prior to calving.

Young cows carrying their first pregnancy require energy and protein for their own growth as well as fetal growth, which makes their nutrient requirements higher than those of adult cows. Most dormant or baled forages do not provide all the calories needed for first-pregnancy cows over the winter, especially if the cattle face any weather stress. Ranchers should plan on providing young cows with supplemental high-quality forage or concentrate for at least part of the winter. The amount of supplement required depends on the quality of the base forage (grazed or baled).

In order to determine the amount of supplement required for the available forage, you need to be able to estimate how much energy reserve the cows’ are storing as body fat. Body condition scores (BCS) are used to describe the relative fatness or body fat reserves of a beef cow. The most commonly used system uses a range of 1 to 9, with a score of 1 representing a very thin cow and 9 representing an extremely fat animal.

Body condition scores are an accurate measure of body fat and are convenient in that cattle do not need to be weighed, merely observed and palpated at a time when other procedures are performed. Depending on mature cow size, there is approximately 80 to over 100 lbs. difference in body weight per BCS. When evaluating body condition, it is important to handle the cattle, so that one is not mistakenly evaluating hair coat, gut fill, or stage of pregnancy. The areas to palpate when determining BCS are: ribs, back, backbone, and tailhead. The entire herd, or a subset of each age group, should be evaluated for BCS during the winter to allow adjustments in winter supplementation to occur before cows lose excessive body weight.

It is very difficult for cows to gain body weight on dormant forage once they have calved and started lactating – even if heavily fed. Therefore, cows should reach their desired breeding body condition by the time they calve. In order to have enough days for thin cows to gain weight, herds should be evaluated 3 to 4 months prior to calving. If evaluated at this time, the weight gain for a BCS 3 cow to reach breeding condition (BCS 5) will be approximately 1.5 to 2.0 pounds per day (which is very possible with good forage and supplementation). In contrast, if cows only have 2 months to gain 2 body condition scores, they will need to gain over 3 pounds daily – a much more challenging task.


By Bob Larson

Anaplasmosis is a serious disease that affects cattle in an increasing larger area of the country. A tiny organism called Anaplasma marginale attaches to red blood cells which leads to destruction of those cells and a decrease in the ability of affected cattle to carry oxygen in their blood. If more red blood cells are destroyed than the animal can replace with new cells – the blood becomes watery, the animal becomes anemic, and other signs of infection can occur, including: fever, depression, dehydration, rapid or difficult breathing, and yellow discoloration of the mucus membranes of the gums, around the eyes, and the vulva. Sometimes affected animals become excited and aggressive when not enough oxygen reaches the brain. Young animals are often able to recover because they can make new red blood cells very quickly, but older animals do not produce new cells very fast and they can quickly become very anemic and have very low oxygen levels in the blood leading to severe illness or death.

            Anaplasmosis is primarily carried from cattle to cattle by ticks, but the movement of blood from infected cattle to susceptible cattle can also be accomplished by biting flies such as horseflies, or by human activities such as via blood-contaminated needles, dehorning instruments, tattoo pliers, or palpation sleeves. The disease has historically been a problem in the southern parts of the United States but has now spread north so that cattlemen in many important beef-producing areas need to be aware of the problem. In herds that become exposed to the organism, cattle of any age can become infected, but the severity of illness is usually mild in young cattle and increases with age. In cattle that become infected when they are 3 years of age or older, 30% to 50% of animals showing signs of the disease are likely to die. If infected cattle are able to survive they are not likely to have severe problems due to the disease in the future, but they remain as carriers for the rest of their life. In some cases these carrier infections can be eliminated using antibiotic treatment.

            The first sign of anaplasmosis in a herd may be the sudden death of adult cattle. If anaplasmosis is identified as a cause of death and disease in a herd, cattle that are obviously sick should be kept as quite as possible and treated with an appropriate injectable antibiotic to kill the organism. In addition, tetracycline can be fed in the mineral mix or supplement to provide additional protection to the herd as directed by a veterinarian through a VFD document.

            For carrier cattle that don’t appear sick but that are infected with the anaplasma organism, your veterinarian can plan a treatment protocol using approved antibiotics administered over several days to clear the organism. However, treatment with antibiotics is not effective for all cattle and those animals that are cleared of the organism become susceptible to re-infection.

            The best plan to minimize disease lose due to anaplasmosis depends greatly on a farm’s or ranch’s geographic location and the number of cattle in the area that are infected. In parts of the country where anaplasmosis infection is rare, a strategy to find and treat and/or remove any carrier-animals is recommended. In contrast, in areas of the country where many cattle are infected, an attempt to remove all carriers from a herd will result in a herd that is susceptible to re-infection and the herd may have greater losses than if other strategies had been used to minimize the disease’s effects.

            If infected cattle are found in a herd in a part of the country where anaplasmosis is rare, one strategy to minimize disease loss is to test the herd for anaplasmosis infection and to treat any test-positive animals with an appropriate antibiotic as directed by your veterinarian. This treatment should be at a time of year when the local tick and fly population is the lowest. Because the treatment does not clear infection from every animal, the animals should be tested again about six months after the treatment and if an animal tests positive at this time, it should be considered a treatment-failure and removed from the herd, either by slaughter or by being sold to a herd in an area where anaplasmosis is common.

            In contrast, in herds located where anaplasmosis is common, rather than trying to avoid infection, some producers may want to allow infection to occur while the cattle are young in order to minimize obvious sickness and death loss. In some countries young animals are purposefully exposed to the organism allowing them to build immunity at a time in their life when the disease is mild. Although they will be infected for life, they are not likely to suffer severe illness. In some states in the U.S., your veterinarian may be able to obtain an experimental anaplasmosis vaccine that does not prevent infection, but is reported to reduce the risk of clinical signs and death. Producers may also elect to feed tetracycline under that direction of a veterinarian when the disease is most prevalent to control active infection and to use insecticides to control tick and fly populations.

            Because the best anaplasmosis control strategy for a particular farm or ranch depends on how likely that herd is to come into to contact with the organism, an important component of a control strategy is a plan to deal with replacement animals. If your herd is free of anaplasmosis and the risk of exposure is low, any replacement animal should be tested before being brought into contact with the herd. A test-positive animal should either be culled or isolated and treated and then re-tested six months after treatment. In contrast, if your herd is infected with anaplasmosis and the organism is common in your area, a test-positive replacement animal is desired, and the greatest health risk is in replacement animals that are not infected with the organism but that will be placed in direct contact with carrier animals. In this situation, one option is vaccination (if available) with close monitoring for clinical signs of the disease and quick treatment if disease is detected.

            Anaplasmosis control requires a good working relationship with your veterinarian to determine your level of risk and best control strategies. The best control strategy for your herd may be very different from that of your neighbors or cattlemen in other parts of the country.

Nutritional Aspects of Cattle Health

Bob L. Larson, DVM, PhD 
Beef Cattle Institute
Kansas State University

Meeting the nutritional needs of cattle is the foundation of a healthy herd. Nutritional needs differ between bulls, dry cows, lactating cows, growing replacement heifers, and post-weaning calves; and the nutrient composition of forages change throughout the year. Because of the interaction between changing animal needs and changing forage conditions, herd managers must be informed and prepared to provide appropriate supplements when needed. In almost all situations when cattle have the opportunity to graze green growing forages that are high-quality and readily digestible, the only supplement needed is salt (and based on local soil and plant characteristics, possibly other minerals). However, even green growing grass has the potential to cause health problems if the concentration of the mineral magnesium is low in the lush leaves at the same time that cows grazing the forage have high magnesium requirements due to being in early lactation or late pregnancy.  

While green growing forage is an excellent feed source for cattle, because of weather factors and growth characteristics of grass, for many weeks of the year cattle only have access to mature or dormant forage that has reduced quality and digestibility. Standing dormant forage and moderate-quality hay can meet most, if not all, of the energy and protein needs of cattle that have relatively low nutritional demands, such as mature cows that are not lactating and bulls that are not active. But if cattle are growing or lactating, dormant forage or hay may be deficient in energy and/or protein and these nutrients must be supplemented to avoid inadequate growth or even weight loss. The maturity and quality of forage when it is cut for hay as well as the conditions in which the hay dries before baling have tremendous impact on the nutrients present. Waiting to cut hay until the forage is very mature may increase the tonnage available, but the quality may be so low that either the cattle will not be provided needed nutrients or the needed supplementation drive up the total diet cost. Because growing replacement heifers, growing bulls, and cows in late stages of pregnancy or early lactation have high nutrient needs, these classes of cattle require higher quality forages or more supplementation of poor-quality forage than adult, non-lactating cattle.     

Because forages and readily available energy and protein supplements vary greatly across North America, knowledge of the local forages and feeds is essential when planning the most cost-efficient diets for cow herds. The types of predominant forage plants and the growth patterns of the different plants in diverse areas of the country greatly impact the quality of the diet for grazing cattle. Many forages and feeds have specific characteristics that affect not only the diet quality but also potential negative effects; and knowledge and experience is needed to avoid health and production problems. Use of some supplemental feeds has to be limited due to adverse effects when fed at higher levels. For example, the high starch content of corn and other grains limits their use in forage-based diets, the potentially high levels of sulfur in corn gluten feed, distillers grain, and some other by-product feeds requires that they be used in moderation, and gossypol in cottonseed meal can cause reduced fertility in bulls which requires that this feed be fed for limited time or in limited amounts in the weeks ahead of the breeding season.  

Cattle that are not receiving adequate amounts of water, energy, protein, salt and required vitamins and minerals can exhibit a wide range of problems that includes poor growth, weight loss, failure to become pregnant, hair and skin lesions, bone and joint problems, and susceptibility to sicknesses such as pneumonia, scours, and nervous system disease. Unless underlying nutritional problems are identified and corrected, use of vaccines, antibiotics, and other interventions will not improve heard health. In many situations, outright disease is not detected, but nutrient deficiencies are negatively impacting body weight and fertility of the herd. 

Fortunately, cattle will thrive on many different types of forages and feeds. The rumen has the ability to convert moderate- and even low-quality feeds into needed nutrients. Because cattle can eat a wide variety of feeds, locally available products that could not be easily shipped to other parts of the country or could not be used in other animal diets can serve as excellent cattle feeds. Knowledge of the nutrient needs of different classes of cattle as well as experience with local forages and feeds will allow cattle producers and their advisors to develop cost-effective diets that meet the needs of cattle to maintain good health and productivity.