Manage lice over winter to improve cattle performance

black Angus cattle Daniel Mitchell/iStock/Thinkstock
Timing of application and proper dosing can make difference in how pour-on takes on lice.

While cattle producers have a need to grow healthy animals for a successful operation, lice are on a different track and ready to thwart that effort by making the animals miserable, affecting their health and performance, according to Boehringer Ingelheim.

In an announcement, Boehringer Ingelheim pointed to a University of Nebraska study showing that a moderate to high lice population in feeder calves significantly decreased average daily gains by 0.21 lb. in the untreated group of animals versus those that were treated.

“Lice can also affect milk production,” said David Boxler, a University of Nebraska Extension educator and livestock entomologist who worked on the study. “What’s worse, what cattle experience with lice infestations, including cold stress, can set up the animal for other issues, including respiratory problems and a generally higher susceptibility to other illnesses.”

At the University of Nebraska West Central Research & Extension Center in North Platte, Neb., Boxler is passionate about finding ways to deliver effective parasite control and has been working with everything from trap prototypes for stable flies to essential oils for cattle horn flies.

“We’re battling parasites without the promise of new parasiticide modes of action,” he said. “While we’re always searching for other unique options, it’s important to follow label directions and use the products we do have available correctly to enhance product efficacy.”

If using a pour-on dewormer for external parasites such as lice, Boehringer Ingelheim noted that applying it when it’s going to do the most good is key, but do so can be challenging with everything else going on at the ranch.

“For northern states, cattle are brought in for weaning and processing in September and October,” Boxler explained. “Producers may think the dewormer they use at that time can take them through the winter and reduce lice populations. Our weather patterns are changing, and a warm fall means those lice aren’t even a threat yet.”

Lice hang out on an animal’s body all year long, but they’re sleepy in the summer, he said, noting that they tuck themselves inside folds of skin, between the legs and body; generally anywhere that’s protected from direct sunlight, in order to survive. As the weather gets colder and hair coats grow longer, lice move up the animal’s body and feel protected enough to reproduce and lay eggs. That sometimes doesn’t happen until late November or December.

“If you’re treating parasites in the fall with an injectable dewormer, that’s not going to knock down a lice population, because it’s not even there yet,” Boehringer Ingelheim veterinarian Dr. Joe Gillespie said. “Pour-on dewormers are the most effective for lice, and they should be timed right before the levels of parasites are at their highest. It’s important to discuss correct timing with your veterinarian to get this right for your operation.”

Gillespie noted that some producers may believe they’re seeing a reinfection in early winter, but if they applied a pour-on before the lice migrated to the top of the animal, the product wasn’t effective. “Lice populations, especially biting or chewing lice, can explode quickly once they start a new life cycle on the back and neck of the animal,” he explained.

“You can have a train wreck if you treat too early,” Boxler agreed. “Treat properly when it gets cold and is going to stay cold.”

Proper application

Boxler emphasized that “reading the product label is critical. Choose a product that is appropriate for the type of lice you have, know if you need more than one application spaced at a certain time interval and ensure complete coverage.”

Complete coverage means taking the time to ensure that a pour-on dewormer is distributed accurately. Carefully apply the product with an applicator gun along the midline (over the top of the back of each animal). Begin at the withers, and pour all the way down to the tailhead in a narrow strip to reduce runoff. Make sure the entire dose gets on the animal -- not on the sides of the chute or on the handlers -- to maximize efficacy.

“Sometimes, an animal doesn’t receive the full dose because things can get chaotic, animals are running down the alley as fast as they can go and you want to get through the process quickly,” Boxler said. “Product ends up flying everywhere. Take the time to apply correctly, and follow the label instructions, because that will enhance product performance.”

The dosage applied should also be adequate for the size and weight class of the animal being treated. Calculate the volume of pour-on product to be administered based on each animal’s weight, using a scale whenever possible, although weigh tapes or a cull weight slip are other options.

“Lice irritate the animal, which, in a mild case, can cause damage to the skin and a small amount of hair loss. If the infestation is heavy enough, it can cause real production and economic problems,” Gillespie said.

Cattle may spend all their time itching, scratching, licking and rubbing instead of eating.

The key to identifying if cattle have lice problems is to look for signs of itching and rubbing, Boxler said, adding, “An early, clear indicator is hairballs on fence lines. Look closer at your animals for patches of skin that appear raw and encrusted. Check multiple locations on multiple animals in the herd for red flags like this.”

If producers can get lice populations under control, cattle will overwinter better, the specialists said. Cattle will grow a good hair coat for protection, steers will gain weight more efficiently and cows will be in better condition for spring calving.

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