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Health planning in the beef cow

17 April 2019, at 9:30am

A guide to developing health plans with your clients to encourage positive change on-farm

In June 2018, a veterinary-led compulsory health plan and performance review was introduced for Red Tractor Farm Assurance clients. This presented an opportunity, and a challenge, for the production animal veterinary surgeon to rationalise and promote proactive health planning in a way that engages with and motivates clients in what has, historically, been an area with minimal veterinary input.

Profitable beef cow production is a challenge – in part due to the relative inefficiency of the system, as a result of high maintenance cost per kilogram in the breeding herd together with long gestation time and the long period from birth to slaughter relative to sheep, pig and poultry meat. Recent trends in reduction in red meat consumption (perhaps reflecting increased consumer concerns regarding animal welfare, antimicrobial use and greenhouse gas emissions) together with a reduction in the direct headage payments available in the 1980s and 1990s have further stretched producers.

While many intensive farming systems have for a long while adopted a planned approach to managing animal health and productivity, the beef sector has lagged behind. Perhaps as a result, only the top third of producers are likely to be making a significant net profit from their beef enterprise.

Currently, the UK is a net importer of beef. But it appears that with efficient production, the UK beef breeding herd has a place within sustainable agriculture. The UK has scope to be self-sufficient, with the ability of beef cattle to use poorer quality forage and marginal grazing, lower labour requirements relative to many other stock systems and the potential of the enterprise to fit within systems – for example, grazed cattle to maintain grassland quality for sheep.

FIGURE (1) Choosing the right breed and system for the farm is key - this shorthorn heifer has been outwintered and will be ready to serve in late summer with minimal concentrate feeding
FIGURE (1) Choosing the right breed and system for the farm is key - this shorthorn heifer has been outwintered and will be ready to serve in late summer with minimal concentrate feeding

Efficiency of production is key to managing a sustainable suckler herd, both in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and profitability, with productivity being recognised not in terms of how much is being produced, but rather how efficiently that production is occurring.

The Red Tractor Farm Assurance requires beef herds to complete a Farm Health Plan and Health and Performance Review, either alone or in conjunction with the farm’s veterinary surgeon. This is then scrutinised and used to compile a Veterinary Health and Performance Review, which comments on antimicrobial use (including high priority critically important antibiotics) and puts forward recommendations for improvements to be made over the coming 12 months.

Whilst this has undoubtably increased farmer engagement with vets, this approach may have limitations unless it is viewed and managed as a dynamic process rather than a static document. There is also little encouragement within this framework to address and analyse production targets as they relate to animal health and welfare, rather than focusing on individual disease management and therefore a danger that the producer treats the health planning exercise as a static yearly task rather than an ongoing flexible blueprint. It is easy to understand why some farmers fail to see the value in going through the motions since little emphasis is placed on the fact that a working health plan aims to maximise net profit whilst safeguarding the health and welfare of the stock.

Veterinary surgeons have scope to play a pivotal role in improving efficiency within the beef system as a whole and the suckler cow herd in particular. Vets have a working knowledge of nutrition, biosecurity, endemic disease risks, fertility and welfare together with an ability to provide unbiased advice and often outstanding regional knowledge. This is an area with huge scope for innovative and practical collaboration with potential for quantifiable increases in productivity for farmers and providing an income stream for veterinary practices as well as subsequent job satisfaction for the farm vet.

Delivering influential health planning relies on developing simple and practical systems for data recording – collecting appropriate data in a way that is tailored to the individual farm. It builds in the ability to analyse this in a way that highlights easy gains, allows benchmarking, tracks progress year on year and allows efficacy of advice to be demonstrated on-farm, promoting increased engagement. Risk assessment based on the individual unit will help to detect potential problem areas and allow proactive health management practices to be put in place to safeguard herd productivity, setting realistic targets and allowing year on year recognition of improvements to be made.

FIGURE (2) Creed feed can be used to minimise stress and performance checks at weaning
FIGURE (2) Creed feed can be used to minimise stress and performance checks at weaning

Approaching health planning

There are two initial questions to ask:

  1. Where is this herd now?
  2. What are the standard operating procedures currently in place?

Analysing the answers to these questions will enable the veterinary surgeon to formulate an action plan, develop targets and generate a health plan. Often, the first question is the most challenging to answer and the first step is to encourage simple and practical record keeping of the important key performance indicators (KPIs). The points below summarise the five areas where the largest gains may be made.

Fertility

Reproductive efficiency is key and can be monitored by setting targets during the production cycle:

  • Heifer management – early breeding and target growth rates
  • Bulls – soundness and fertility; genetics and breeding soundness examinations
  • Cow condition and nutrition – using target condition scores during the production cycle and, in particular, managing condition to minimise winter feed use and maximise fertility
  • Calving ease – promoting easy calvings, using bull estimated breeding values (EBVs), taking into account both direct (paternal) and indirect (maternal) calving ease and monitoring cow condition
  • Maintaining herd health – by herd health planning and biosecurity management/risk assessment; this can be challenging in the current stratified system

Choosing the correct breed and system for the farm

It’s important to choose the correct breed (Figure 1). The increasing trend towards very large suckler cows has led to a concomitant decrease in percentage production efficiency.

FIGURE (3) Efficient short duration finishing systems can be used for maximum profitability
FIGURE (3) Efficient short duration finishing systems can be used for maximum profitability

Managing to minimise wintering costs

Body condition scoring post-calving, one month pre-weaning and prior to last trimester of pregnancy, and feeding thin and young animals separately to ensure they reach target condition score.

Producing high value cattle

Using creep feed (Figure 2) to minimise performance checks at weaning - aiming for daily live weight gains of approximately 1kg/day.

Finishing weaned cattle

Using efficient short duration finishing systems (Figure 3) and matching these cattle to the market requirements.

In terms adapted from Health Planning for the Beef Cow Herd by SAC consulting services:

In order to monitor and interpret performance, quality data at key points in the production cycle is required, together with a standardised system to measure performance and compare with other similar units (benchmarking). The next requirement is the ability and willingness to intervene if necessary in a way that is proactive rather than reactive and in a way that is sensitive to the individual needs of the client. The key in many herds is to start with simple and easily obtained data and to put in place a recording system that is practical and user friendly.

Data from the client

  • Cows/heifers put to the bull
  • Number of cows PD positive
  • Bulling period for both cows and heifers
  • Number of cows that calve in the first three weeks (include cows calving up to 10 days before their due date)
  • Number of calves that die between birth and weaning (ideally broken down to perceived stillborn, birth to 48 hours and 48 hours to weaning)
  • Number of assisted calvings
  • Number of calves weaned/sold and weight if possible

The figures to the right, while not difficult to collect, will start to give a picture of the calving year and can be standardised.

Standardised data

The results can be used to indicate problem areas and allow intervention - as well as allowing benchmarking.

Simple production targets

  • Each cow to produce one calf per year
  • Maximise kg calf sold per kg cow mated
  • average calving interval of 365 days

Utilising data

Perhaps the crucial point and the stumbling block for traditional health planning is that once data are available,they need to be utilised in real time in order to make changes, rather than to act as a historical record of success and failure.

A simple planned review at scanning, weaning and pre-calving may be enough on some farms. On others, the use of online systems such as the Scottish Agricultural College SHAPS (which will soon be available for smart-phone users) and My Healthy Herd enables the producer and vet to interact in real time and allows problem areas to be targeted early. Many practices are successfully running herd health groups, where small groups of producers with similar systems are encouraged to record and share data, with a vet as facilitator.

Summary

Farm health planning is not new, but the introduction of compulsory veterinary-led planning for many producers has opened a window of opportunity for practices to encourage engagement with these clients. It allows them to provide a service that goes beyond the concept many farmers have of a health plan produced simply to satisfy regulatory bodies and then returned to the shelf until the following year.

Farm health planning goes beyond animal health and biosecurity – although these remain important components. Health planning has the potential to also improve profitability and sustainability of an enterprise, by developing an understanding of how efficiency may be improved by looking at the system with a broad understanding and encouraging regular reviews.