Keeping Your Herd Healthy

Learn to identify and manage health problems with your livestock before experiencing loss in production.

| January/February 2018

Herd health is top priority when raising livestock, but its impact could go unnoticed to the untrained eye. Herd health displays not only in the number of sick or injured animals, but also in your animals’ welfare and productivity on the whole. Many producers don’t realize that their animals are fighting off an underlying disease that is costing them money. Ailments can be hard to spot without monitoring feed intake and production numbers. In short, some might assume that if they don’t see any visible signs of sickness, their animals are healthy.

When your farm has a disease outbreak, there are two groups affected: a small number of the sick ones, and the rest that are fighting off the disease but may not be showing any signs. Those seemingly healthy animals are paying a price just like those more obviously afflicted. It’s like an iceberg, and the majority of your production losses are invisible under the water, because it is a decrease in milk, eggs, fiber growth, or weight gain.

Dairy producers who monitor milk production on a daily basis are well aware of the impact of subclinical diseases. They can tune into a disease outbreak before any visible signs of sickness appear because they’re aware of any drop in milk production. This production loss is due to the fact that the immune system requires large amounts of energy to fight off illness, and animals tend to eat less when they don’t feel well. Boosting your herd’s immunity is the most important part of maximizing your herd’s production and welfare.

Components of health

Your animal’s health is a result of the interplay of three things: its immunity, the pathogen, and the environment. These are interacting daily, even when disease isn’t visible on your farm. The environment is constantly impacting an animal’s immunity and the number of pathogens an animal is exposed to. How you manage your animals impacts all three of these factors by determining how many stresses your animals have in their environment, indirectly affecting their immunity, directly boosting their immunity with vaccinations, and determining which pathogens are present and how numerous and widespread. Whether you see disease in a herd is determined by two things: the ability of the low-immunity animals to fight off disease and the number of pathogens those animals are exposed to.

It is important to note that the environment only decreases an animal’s immunity; it cannot increase it regardless of any marketing claims of nutritional supplements. A clean, comfortable environment along with proper nutrition allows the immune system to perform at its best, but does not better prepare the immune system to fight off particular diseases. The best we can do is help keep an animal’s immunity functioning to its fullest and minimize their exposure to pathogens through proper herd management.

Think of the immune system as an army; improving the environment can be equated with keeping the army well-fed, well-rested, clean, and in good fighting condition, which while important for winning a battle, does little to turn the outcome if they have to manufacture their weapons after the enemy arrives. The only way to truly increase your animal’s immunity is through vaccinations or natural disease exposure. However, vaccines require proper herd health management to work to their fullest. The goal of herd management is to minimize the number of pathogens and improve the environment. Then, depending on the farmer’s preference, vaccinating can maximize your animal’s immunity (knowing that the environment is constantly trying to lower it).

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