Creating A Herd Health Plan for the Beef Herd

Published on Tue, 09/29/2020 - 10:59am

Creating A Herd Health Plan for the Beef Herd

 By Jaclyn Krymowski

Most ranchers, large and small scale alike, could tell you quite a bit about their animal health protocols and yearly schedule if you asked them offhand. Considerably fewer would likely be able to produce a formalized written protocol. This makes perfect sense, developing a herd health plan is time consuming and tedious. Unless it is required by a certain welfare or certification program, this detail is very tempting to forgo.

In spite of the obvious inconvenience, there is a lot of merit to be had in making an official herd health plan part of your management strategy. Everyone knows disease prevention is far less expensive than the cost of treatment. Think of this as a concrete way of putting said prevention into action. It is something not only for your own reference, but also for any family members, employees or emergency help who may be involved. Besides disease avoidance, it is nice to have a premeditated course of action in case of disease outbreak to prevent further spread to healthy animals.

While it does cover a lot of bases, an intimidating task at first glance, pulling together this document need not be a stressful nightmare. When you break it down much of it comes down to common sense, and if you are a successful manager chances are you are already unofficially implementing most good health practices already. Plus, your veterinarian and extension agents will often be all too happy to help you in this pursuit.

The rough outline
The cattle production cycle is the hinge to develop a sound herd health plan. The scope of what yearly production looks like includes not only the reproduction cycle, but also seasonal management, pasture movements, vaccination schedules, marketing and nutrition.

The common way to break these down is by seasonality. These are pre-calving, the calving window, post-calving, weaning, pre-breeding/pre-conditioning, and breeding respectively. In each of these broad seasonal categories, break down what you typically do in relation to health. Include what you’re feeding, vaccinations routinely given, internal and external parasite control, diseases/issues to check for and so-forth. This section is the real “meat” of your plan, and it should give a clear overview that anyone might be able to pick it up and have a good level of understanding.

Another part you will want to include are treatment protocols for specific issues you expect to encounter. Identify what drugs you keep on-hand, approximate dosages, withdrawal periods and so forth. If you have any employees involved, this section should also list who is qualified to administer treatments and the proper way to document them. This can include what to do in emergency situations for down or injured cows, and how to euthanize if need be.

Biosecurity is another aspect, more frequently address in dairy than beef. All operations of any size should have some sort of biosecurity procedures in place. It could be as simple as having a disinfecting boot scrub for visitors or quarantining newly purchased animals before introducing them to the rest of the herd. Regardless of what this may look like for you, it is a good practice to outline what your expectations are of visitors and potential customers. This will be especially helpful in the unlikely event of a regional or even national disease outbreak.

Remember to always think about customization. Your plan isn’t just specific to the issues you face in your state or region, it is specific to your exact herd and may not look like what your neighbor needs. Think about how the weather, facilities, stocking density, resources and labor may all play into this.

Make it simple, make it work
Once you are familiar with all the components of a herd health plan and your specific needs you have before you the task of putting it all together in one cohesive document. This certainly is not something you want to sit down and pour hours of work into all at once. Instead, it is more efficient and less mentally taxing to go through piece by piece. When you follow the seasonal calendar, this makes it fairly easy to organize everything in distinct sections.

If you have certain employees or family members who oversee various aspects of the operation such as reproduction, let them write down those protocols, needs and goals. Coordinate the best ways to track and exchange records in accord and keep the line of communication open.
Don’t forget to follow the big picture. Be sure to have a sheet of contacts for on and off the farm, information and procedures for emergencies and so forth. If available, you should consult your veterinarian before and after you have put together your plan. They can double check you on everything and let you know if something has been overlooked.

Employ outside resources
If you have not done a lot of document or writing work, you may not know where to start for how a proper plan “should” look on paper. If you are very fortunate, some vet clinics do offer creating herd health programs as a service to clients. But even if that is not the case, it is extremely easy for anyone to have very professional looking documents and records.

Several university extensions already have downloadable outlines and worksheets free to use and readily available. Accessible templates out there make it so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, simply customize as you see fit. Fellow producers may be willing to let you have a look at their plans and how they pulled it together. And don’t forget, there are plenty of customizable software and programs out there. Microsoft Excel has a plethora of free templates that can be easily edited to make records, inventory or protocol worksheets.

And of course, don’t forget the real-world educational tools that are available to also supplement your health goals. Everyone who works with animals in some capacity on an operation should be Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) trained, even just on the free virtual course. This not only offers a lot of excellent practical information, it directly covers important things like proper drug administration, withdrawal periods and the like. It gives you added confidence that everyone has been exposed to the industry standards and expectations in administering cattle health services.

Additionally, your extension office, state or regional cattle association may also offer in-person programs and webinars for continuing education at little or no cost. Stay up to date on what’s being offered and never be afraid to take advantage. Remember, a good herd health plan is very adaptable and routinely goes through review and update. Furthering education on your own time is not just for creating an initial plan, it helps you improve going forward.