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  • Sarah Harris-Christian

From the Ground Up

Using proactive biosecurity efforts as a building block to reestablish the national cow herd inventory.

A lone rider watches as his herd grazes beyond the sage, the splotches of black cattle a stark contrast to the red dirt of the canyon. As the morning sun bears down upon the producer’s back in the high desert, another Angus producer, hundreds of miles away, begins her intake protocol, processing newly purchased replacements in the wake of a snowstorm. 

One would think there aren’t many similarities among these two producers, but they are both engaged in the beef industry, and inadvertently tasked to overcome an impending challenge.

“Here we are today, one of the lowest cow herds that we have had since the ’60s,” says Brian Dorcey, director of veterinary strategy, Farmers Business Network. “Our task as cattlepeople is to [determine] how we get our cattle herd built back up.”

Dwindling domestic cow herd numbers are a phenomenon precipitated by ongoing challenges faced by U.S. producers, Dorcey says. Factors such as environment, labor, funds and consolidation greatly contribute to a producer’s decision to either stay in or clear their hands of the beef production gamble.  

“Oftentimes in the beef industry, our cycle of inputs between when we start and when we are done is a long trajectory,” Dorcey says. “Doing those little things right every day, whether it’s comfort, whether it’s timing, whether it’s feeding, pay huge dividends.”

To combat challenges in the wake of record-low numbers, Dorcey says every operation can make a difference. Specifically, he urges producers to create and take into consideration their operational goals. 

“Plan the work, and work the plan,” he says. 

Ponder the operation’s “anticipated level of risk” wagered with labor, time, expertise and capital, Dorcey advises. In particular, evaluate these factors through the lens of biosecurity.

Biosecurity is a practice that became a major focus in the swine industry, Dorcey says. Biosecurity protocols in livestock production are instituted to protect herd health. Protection can be tailored for newly purchased and on-farm animals. From vaccination and antibiotic administration to parasiticide intervention and quarantine, these proactive measures for herd viability each have their purpose to protect your animals, and people, too. Every herd health challenge is addressed and dealt with in its own unique way, he adds.

“We must have a multifactorial approach,” Dorcey explains. “It’s not always environment, it’s not always bugs, it’s not always drugs. Sometimes it’s nutrition; sometimes it’s people; and it’s generally 10%, 10 things. Not very often is it one smoking gun.”

As far as herd health goes, Dorcey says most producers are either biosecure, or not. He adds most producers, whether they know it or not, operate on a level of biocontain, in which they acknowledge they have a certain amount of disease among their herd. Calculated decisions about how and when to bring cattle onto the operation’s premises can make a difference in herd health and protection, he says.

“There are opportunities when we are purchasing animals, when we’re talking about developing animals, that we can really upregulate our biosecurity,” Dorcey says. “If you think about our plan of expansion, if you want to be the most biosecure — grow from within.”

Especially for cow-calf producers, this idea of internal growth can be fairly attainable, he says. Retention is a key factor in building herd health numbers while mitigating the introduction of disease-causing vectors. Dorcey says some of his clients go as far as opting to retain their own female calves, and produce their own bulls through embryo transfer (ET), just for the sake of securing the next generation of healthy breeding stock. 

Purchasing livestock isn’t wholly avoidable for many producers, though. Knowing the health history of the cattle and the operations you merchandise with can give producers the upper hand in gauging potential biosecurity risks, especially when cattle transport is involved, he adds. However, animals are not the only vectors for biosecurity concerns. Dorcey says agents of disease transmission can also be introduced into herds by people, too. 

“Everybody in the business is responsible and accountable for biosecurity in our industry,” he says. 

He adds that veterinary guidance can and should be sought for collaboration in designing biosecure measures of intervention and protection. 

Veterinarians shouldn’t be the only people in a producer’s corner, though. Having positive relationships with personnel is integral to the success of an operation. Dorcey also advises producers to maintain a positive relationship with their nutritionist, banker, and family to effectively achieve their specified operational goals. 

“We’ve got a big job to do as cattle producers and cattle veterinarians and people in the industry to build this herd back,” Dorcey says. “Our inputs in our business are high, our labor short … But now we’ve got the opportunity to set our trajectory for the next five, 10 years, or manage our operation to be as profitable as possible.”

Efficiency is key to seek profitable margins, he says. With responsible biosecurity efforts, cattle producers might just see an increase in profit, and in the national cattle inventory. 

Editor’s note: Sarah Harris-Christian is a freelance writer from Centralia, Okla. 

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