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Tips for tackling cattle biosecurity inside and out

July 8, 2024
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Implementing biosecurity procedures can feel like a daunting task on cattle farms, but breaking the process down into more manageable steps can achieve your goals. You can always add more steps later.

“A successful biosecurity plan is really about doing the little things correctly every day,” said Trey Gellert, DVM, with Four Star Veterinary Service in Chickasaw, Ohio. “Also, inspect what you expect. That means conducting personal audits once a quarter or so to revisit your biosecurity plan and make sure things are getting done appropriately.”

For all cattle operations, regardless of the type, Gellert has a common list of biosecurity priorities, which he groups into external and internal measures.

  • External steps are designed to reduce the transmission of disease pathogens onto the farm from sources off the farm.
  • Internal measures are meant to prevent disease spread between different areas of the farm or ages of cattle.

“No one wants sick cattle,” he added. “A lot of the steps might feel invisible and it may be hard to see results, but they directly lead to healthier cattle.”

External biosecurity measures

At the top of Gellert’s external biosecurity list is to minimize the number of herds from which you buy cattle. “One source would be ideal,” he emphasized. “Even if you commingle cattle with similar health and vaccination status, there’s a health risk from the added stress.”

Check the cattle’s health history, and ensure their vaccinations match with those required on your farm. “Talk to the source’s veterinarian, and get a certificate of veterinary inspection,” Gellert said.

Quarantine all incoming cattle for 4 weeks. The minimum requirement is that there’s no nose-to-nose contact or shared airspace with other cattle. Preferably they are quarantined in a separate facility at least 500 yards from the existing herd. Equally important is to do chores for the quarantined cattle last, and disinfect the area between groups before restocking with new cattle.

Monitor the quarantined cattle for signs of disease, such as lethargy, fevers, coughing/drooling or off feed. “We want to prove that they’re disease-free, won’t get sick and possibly spread disease to others in the herd,” he explained.

Establishing cattle loading/unloading areas away from the farm site is best but not always doable. Either way, it’s critical to disinfect loading/unloading areas as well as transport vehicles between cattle groups.

Control access to the farm and manage traffic flow by setting up a single entry point, and designate parking spaces for staff and visitors. Have a visitor log so you can trace back if a disease concern arises.

Have clothes and boots for visitors, and monitor the cleanliness of equipment that’s entering the farm. For staff, make sure there are boots, clothing and processing tools dedicated to only the quarantine area and that they are kept separate from the rest of the herd.

For herds that use bulls, know the animal’s health history and test for disease if it is coming onto the farm. “Do not share bulls between herds,” Gellert said. “And if you use semen, get it only from a reputable source with certified disease-free status.”

Use dedicated tractors for manure and crops to avoid fecal and chemical contamination of feed. Do not feed any ruminant-derived ingredients to cattle.

“Control rodents, pests, insects, wild animals and birds to lessen the impact they could have on the herd,” he added. “Make sure fences are in good shape.”

Internal biosecurity measures

Some areas may seem to overlap, Gellert noted, but organizing them into external and internal groupings can help workers visualize them a bit better.

Establish an internal pest-control program, which may involve rodent baiting, reinforced storage and taking other steps to ensure they don’t gain access to feed and water sources.

Clean organic matter and dirt from the facility and equipment between cattle groups, then follow up with a broad-spectrum disinfectant. This also applies to farm equipment, animal-handling equipment and feed-handling equipment.

Check and clean feeders and waterers of visible debris every day. Plan to scrub water tanks at least weekly. For both feeders and waterers, clean and disinfect, if possible, between cattle groups.

It sounds simple enough, but set up a schedule to wash farm clothes and clean boots regularly.

When vaccinating or medicating cattle, change needles every 10 animals or so to prevent burrs from developing. “If you see any blood on the needle, change it,” Gellert added. Surgical equipment such as dehorners and castration tools need to be disinfected between animal groups.

Along those lines, recognize that the vaccination program is part of the biosecurity program. “It increases the animal’s immunity for potential exposure so we can decrease the risk of developing a disease,” he noted. “Work with your veterinarian to develop a vaccine protocol for the herd.” Also, make sure that vaccines are stored, handled and administered according to label instructions.

Set up an isolation area for sick cattle where they will not have nose-to-nose contact or share airspace with the rest of the herd. Keep them separated for 3 to 4 weeks, depending on the illness. “Make sure they’re not actively sick before returning them to the herd,” he said.

People are part of the plan

A biosecurity plan is only as good as the people implementing it, Gellert said. “You can have a piece of paper that spells everything out, but if the steps aren’t getting done, then you’re only as good as your weakest link.” That requires training and follow-up, explaining each person’s role and what happens if a process falls short.

“They need to understand all the measures we want to implement, the flow of the biosecurity plan, the flow of the cattle,” he noted, “such as working from the youngest to older healthy cattle, then to sick/isolated cattle then to quarantined cattle.”

To ensure that biosecurity measures are completed as expected, establish a biosecurity manager. Make the person responsible for implementation, identifying future needs and follow-up training. Another avenue to drive the biosecurity message home is to require all farm employees to be trained and certified in the industry’s Beef Quality Assurance Plan.

Finally, to keep employees motivated tell them what the risks are, but also tell them when they did a good job. “At the end of the day, if we keep cattle healthy, it makes everyone’s job easier and more rewarding,” Gellert said.