Keeping cattle healthy in natural programs

SOUTH DAKOTA - It’s possible to raise cattle successfully in “natural” programs that don’t allow the use of ionophores, implants, and antibiotics, but producers must keep a keen eye on animal health to do it.
calendar icon 19 January 2007
clock icon 3 minute read

That’s the message from South Dakota State University Extension Veterinarian Russ Daly, one of the speakers at a Jan. 17 workshop in Brookings about raising cattle for the natural market. More about natural beef is available at an SDSU Extension conference Web site. Reach it from the main Extension Web site, Click on “Matching Cattle to Markets: A Natural Approach.”

When feeding cattle within a natural program, the cost of a sick calf is much higher than simply the cost of the treatment, Daly said. Since antibiotics and certain other treatments cannot be used in natural programs, a calf that has been treated must be taken out of the program, and the opportunity for a higher return on that calf is lost.

“This makes animal health a crucial component of natural programs. It is very important to realize that while antibiotics and certain other medications are typically not allowed in these programs, the use of vaccines is allowed, and must be a part of the preventative health program when raising calves naturally,” Daly added.

Disease conditions are not different for natural cattle compared to conventionally raised cattle, but controlling those conditions is made more challenging by the restrictions of natural programs. Disease conditions producers need to watch for include neonatal calf diarrhea (scours), bovine respiratory disease complex (BRDC), coccidiosis, and digestive disorders including acidosis, bloat, and liver abscesses.

Managing the immune system by proper use of vaccines and controlling stresses and other immune suppressive events becomes extremely important in natural programs. Daly said vaccine use should start with the calf's dam pre-calving with vaccination for calf scour pathogens such as E. coli, rotavirus, coronavirus, and Clostridium perfringens. It should continue with proper turnout, pre-weaning, and weaning vaccinations.

Methods to minimize stress include proper weaning procedures, treatment for internal and external parasites, proper introduction to feed, and proper stocking rates and use of facilities. Another source of immunosuppression is the exposure to Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD) virus through exposure to persistently infected calves. When purchasing natural and conventional cattle, incoming calves should be screened for BVD persistent infection before they enter the feedlot.

Managing exposure to disease agents is important in the control of baby calf diarrhea and coccidiosis. These agents are spread through the manure and some can persist in the environment for prolonged periods of time. Calving cows on clean ground will significantly reduce the incidence of calf scours, and therefore the necessity to treat these calves.

Managing rumen health by proper nutrition management is important in the control of digestive disorders. Most natural programs disallow the use of ionophores, which have been used to moderate these conditions. As a result, more attention must be paid to the nutritional management of naturally fed cattle, so these disorders are minimized.

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