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Biosecurity at the ranch
It doesn’t matter if you are receiving stocker calves, replacement heifers or older cows. One of the fundamental parts of a good biosecurity program is to isolate new arrivals so they can be evaluated for any diseases.

Biosecurity? Preventive measures are a must on the ranch

Keeping diseases at bay requires a lot more than just a vaccination program.

By Caitlin Hebbert

Perhaps the greatest threat to the profitability of all livestock operations is a disease outbreak. Foot-and-mouth disease in Britain in 2001 stopped animal agriculture in its tracks; and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in 2003 initiated one of the greatest biosecurity movements in the United States, prompting many protocols and regulations still in place today. Another example of a devastating disease outbreak in recent years is bovine tuberculosis in cattle and whitetail deer in Michigan and Minnesota.

Today, a more common threat to your operation might be from a visitor, such as your neighbor coming over to help work cattle. Something as simple as manure on someone’s boots or on the hooves of a horse could contaminate your herd with the scours that this individual has been battling in his own calves.

During spring and breeding season, vehicle and foot traffic will likely increase at your operation with the onset of visits from AI technicians, consultants, veterinarians or other allied industry partners. Each of these encounters poses a risk that is worthy of consideration and preventive measures.

The term “biosecurity” may stimulate thoughts of hazmat suits or gas masks. It really is nothing more, however, than taking preventive measures to ensure the health of your operation, and having a plan in place should those measures be overwhelmed or compromised.

These measures go beyond having an active Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) certification and a vaccination protocol, but they are well worth your time and effort, considering the hazards posed to your animals and the profitability of your operation.

Fewer disease outbreaks often lead to reduced use of antibiotics and lower general costs from treatment, labor and loss of production associated with sick cattle. Biosecurity improves the perception of your operation and animal agriculture in general among consumers, potential buyers and the general public.

Stephen Collett, University of Georgia veterinary medicine professor emeritus, details a hierarchy of three levels of biosecurity. All bio-security concerns can be organized within these tiers, which make tackling a plan for biosecurity a more manageable and approachable task.

Conceptual biosecurity

This foundational level of biosecurity primarily deals with facility placement and the ability to physically isolate animals. Consider the location of your working facilities and isolation pens, including their proximity to public roads or other high-traffic areas.

Ask yourself, just how isolated are my areas? Reducing access to these areas strengthens the biosecurity of your operation. Changes as simple as making your processing chute accessible to outside personnel such as AI technicians or veterinarians, so they don’t have to walk through a series of pens, can play a large role in reducing risk. The less traffic, and the more strategically placed the necessary traffic, the better off you and your cattle are.

Structural biosecurity

Consider the overall layout of your operation. Perimeter fencing is an obvious factor.

Remember: Good fences make good neighbors, and bad fences pose a significant concern. Be aware of the health protocols used by all of your immediate neighbors.

You may do everything right from a health and vaccination perspective, but you bear the risk of contamination if your neighbor brings in cattle fresh from the sale barn and moves them in across the fence from your cattle.

Be especially aware of using pastures that share a fence with a neighbor who runs stocker calves, as those calves are significantly more prone to illness. Likewise, be a considerate neighbor and steward of livestock — don’t put your neighbor in that situation either.

Another structural component to biosecurity is storage and delivery of animal feed, a vector for disease that could quickly contaminate a large number of animals quickly. Store feed where it’s not easily accessible by rodents or wildlife.

Deer-to-livestock transmission of bovine tuberculosis occurred in this manner in Minnesota in 2005 and was a rampant issue for several years. Structural biosecurity largely consists of being strategic in the way you use your facilities, and organize or guide movement through your property.

Procedural biosecurity

This level can be defined as both your routine procedures and your disease strategy, such as quality assurance and quality control. For this two-part level, consider how to prevent the introduction of disease (bioexclusion) as well as how to prevent the spread of disease should it occur (biocontainment).

You hear the term “isolation” often in terms of biosecurity, because it’s one of the simplest, most effective yet underused strategies for protecting cattle from disease.

The National Animal Health Monitoring System reported in 2008 that 35% of herds with one to 99 beef cows had new additions within the previous 12 months that weren’t isolated upon arrival and previous to mingling with the existing herd. This statistic jumped to 64% of nonisolated new additions in herds of more than 100 cows.

Isolation should not be reserved for new additions to the herd; think back to your neighbors and fences. If neighboring cattle mingle with yours, be especially conscientious of differences in health protocols and the history of those neighboring cattle.

This can help to prioritize your subsequent course of action, and it is particularly important when bulls are involved. Reproductive diseases can be some of the most devastating to profitability, as they often go undiagnosed until calving season.

Several biosecurity steps can help protect the health of your cattle: Be specific in your planning. Research disease risks in your area. Be aware of threats and how diseases are transmitted, and establish a plan to prevent the risks.

Consult and communicate with your local veterinarians; they often will be knowledgeable about diseases common to your region and have useful information to help protect you and your cattle. Be proactive. A little caution and awareness when it comes to biosecurity costs little to nothing and could help prevent significant financial loss. 

Hebbert is a Noble Research Insti-tute livestock consultant. Contact her at cshebbert@noble.org.

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