Prevention truly is worth a pound of cure

Vaccinations and biosecurity go hand in hand when managing cattle diseases

For many producers, biosecurity is a little like closing the barn door after the cows have bolted.

Dr. Frank Garry

Dr. Frank Garry
photo: Supplied

“Sadly, in many cases, what it takes for producers to make the change is the ‘big problem’ where they get their butt kicked,” said Dr. Frank Garry, a veterinarian and professor at the University of Colorado.

“Then, eventually something changes — not because we want it to, but because it has to.”

So why don’t more producers put biosecurity measures in place before disaster hits?

“Tradition and habit,” Garry said at the University of Calgary Veterinary Medicine Beef Cattle Conference last month.

“Change is hard. It’s true, but in a certain kind of sense, it’s bullshit. It’s an excuse. The change will occur whether you do an active dance with it or not.”

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Producers also think that biosecurity requires a lot of change — but that’s not the case, he said.

“Most biosecurity efforts don’t actually cost very much money. They cost a change in thought and in management.”

But on the flip side, infectious diseases do result in “ongoing loss and inefficiency.”

“You have reduced production because you cannot have infectious disease on an operation and not lose money to decreased productivity in the animals,” said Garry.

Producers make money through a simple equation: The number of animals sold multiplied by their weight and the price per pound. Decreased productivity and increased death losses hit two parts of that equation.

“For every calf you lose, you lose 500 pounds of revenue. This is true whether cattle prices are good or bad,” said Garry. “And for every single calf you lose to whatever infectious disease you want to name, you better increase the weaning weight of your next 10 calves by 50 pounds to equal your lost revenue.

“You’ll turn a lot of attention to getting that extra 50 pounds of weaning weight. My question is will you put the same energy and effort into something that actually decreases these losses?”

In most cases, implementing biosecurity measures simply means “being relatively thoughtful about a relatively few things.”

Three-pronged approach

Garry supports a three-pronged approach to disease management on the farm — using antibiotics, vaccines, and biosecurity in concert.

But prevention is worth a pound of cure, he added.

“Antibiotics are not a prevention tool. They don’t do jack to prevent problems in the herd,” said Garry. “You’re going to say, ‘I do prevent disease — I used vaccines.’ But do they really prevent disease? You are not going to vaccinate Johne’s disease away. It will not happen.”

Vaccines “modify” disease occurrence and decrease shedding of the infectious agents, but they can also be “questionable in their efficacy.”

“Without something else to back them up, vaccines are a waste of your money in many situations,” said Garry. “If you pair the vaccine with a biosecurity control program, now you have power. If you do not use both together, you will lose the game and squander a boatload of money.”

Unlike vaccinations, biosecurity is “not pathogen specific.”

“Most of the management practices that decrease disease transmission for one agent are effective against multiple. If you institute really good Johne’s disease control procedures, you will also decrease calf scours. They go hand in hand.”

How to build a plan

But in some cases, true biosecurity is impossible.

“There are so many infectious organisms that are already in the premise that, in many cases, biocontainment is more important for average everyday management than biosecurity,” said Garry. “We want management and hygiene practices that decrease the risk of introducing or spreading infectious disease, therefore reducing animal exposure.”

And that starts with a disease-monitoring and management plan.

“We want to prevent transmission, eliminate the agent, and increase immunity,” he said. “That requires a relatively specific strategy, which has goal setting, risk assessment, planning, implementation, and monitoring.”

The first step is education.

“You need to understand your target and what you’re doing. You need to know the agent and what it’s going to do,” he said. “Then you do a risk assessment. Where am I likely to have problems on the farm? From that, I develop a management plan, and only then do I decide what I’m going to do to test it.

“But what it really takes is commitment.”

Producers don’t need to be running a “100 per cent sterile operation” to make a meaningful improvement in the health of their cattle, added Garry.

“There are no fail-safes. There are no places where you can say, ‘OK, I did that — the disease will never be a problem on my operation,’” he said. “Instead, we put in multiple hurdles, and each hurdle reduces the risk, and when you combine them, you get incremental improvement.

“You don’t have zero risk, but you’re getting pretty darn close.”

About the author


Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.



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