by: Heather Smith Thomas

A conscientious stockman learns to tell the difference between a healthy animal and a sick one. It helps to be able to detect subtle signs of early disease; early detection and early treatment can often make the difference of life or death, quick recovery or prolonged treatment and convalescence, for that animal.

Disease is a term that refers to any condition resulting in impairment of normal function. We tend to think of a disease as something caused by infection with bacteria or viruses, but poor health can also be the result of parasites, malnutrition, congenital defects or injury--anything that interferes with proper body function.

The best way to become a good judge of health and a reader of subtle signs of early symptoms of disease is to spend time with your cattle. Seeing them on a regular basis (whether feeding them during winter, or in a feedlot, or just walking, driving or riding through a group of cattle frequently) enables the observant stockman to recognize the signs of health or sickness.

Brandon Dominguez, DVM, MS (Clinical Assistant Professor, Large Animal Clinical Sciences, Texas A&M) says that when a person first drives into a pasture, that first impression can often give a clue regarding whether any of the animals are not feeling well. If an individual is sick it may not be exhibiting typical behavior. “Depending on the time of day and what the cattle are usually doing at that time, you might detect some abnormality. They tend to graze early in the day and later in the evening, spending the hottest part of the day resting in the shade and chewing their cud,” he says.

“If you notice cattle grazing at an abnormal time of day or not eating when you expect them to be eating, this might be a tip-off that something is wrong. If they are eating/grazing when they would normally be resting, it may be a nutritional issue; there may not be enough grass, or enough hay provided,” he explains.

“When assessing them for health issues, I usually start looking at the youngest animals first. Are they active? Do they appear normal or is one of them just lying around and lethargic? Are the ears droopy? In a young newborn calf this could indicate failure of passive transfer (inadequate antibody protection from colostrum and the calf is sick) or a calf that's not getting enough milk. You might need to separate that cow and calf from the rest of the herd and look at them more closely,” says Dominguez.

If it's a very young calf, make sure the calf is nursing and that the teats are not too large or long for the calf to suck. Make sure the cow doesn't have mastitis or sore teats, or some other problem that interferes with her ability to produce milk or to allow the calf to nurse. If her udder is sore she may be kicking the calf off.

“It the calf is small or falling behind the other calves in growth and the cow has a big, swollen bag this could be an indication she has mastitis and isn't letting the calf nurse. She needs to brought in and treated,” he says.

If the cows haven't calved yet, close observation is important to make sure things go well during calving. “This is probably when people pay the most attention to their cattle, especially the 1st and 2nd calf heifers. The more frequently that group can be monitored, the better. If the stockman can check those cows and notice something wrong, getting help to the calving cow may save the calf's life and the heifer's life as well,” he says.

Treating Sick Animals – “With the drought we've been having these past few years, and a lot of dust blowing around, irritation to respiratory passages may cause respiratory signs—even in older cattle that we don't expect to get sick. Bovine respiratory disease (BRD) is one of the major issues in the cattle industry but we usually see it in stocker and feeder animals. It can affect cow-calf herds as well, especially when these herds are stressed,” says Dominguez.

“We might see calves with snotty noses that are lethargic and coughing. It may pay to treat them, because the sick ones may be just the tip of the iceberg. It might be important for the producer to visit with the veterinarian regarding vaccination protocols and treatment plans,” he says.

“Daily observation and monitoring are important, to pick up any disease problems at the earliest signs. This will help determine success or failure of treatment.” Having a good relationship with the veterinarian is always a good idea, to figure out a good herd health plan.

Water/Environment - Adequate water is always important. Even if there is plenty of grass available, the animals won't do well if they don't have enough water. “Make sure the water is accessible and the stream, spring or pond hasn't dried up or isn't in the process of drying up—and that the cattle can get to the water without getting stuck in mud. Water should be clean and not have a buildup of algae,” says Dominguez. If cattle aren't drinking enough they won't eat enough.

“It's important to not just look at the animals themselves but also the overall environment. When riding or driving through pastures, pay attention to the various plants—not only what the cattle are eating, but also the other plants that might be present. If most of the good forage is gone, are there any toxic plants that might cause problems?” Many toxic plants are not eaten by cattle unless they are short on other feed.

A lot of people have Johnsongrass in their pastures or use it for hay, and it can be good feed or a problem, depending on weather conditions. “If it is stressed (by drought or frost), it can become toxic. If you have any toxic plants or any potentially toxic plants, it's wise to work with rangeland specialists who can help identify some of those plants,” he says. In some instances you might need to figure out a way to eliminate them.

Some years are worse than others for certain disease outbreaks. “Here in Texas, the recent rain has stirred up the soil and may bring some pathogens to the surface that we haven't dealt with very often—such as anthrax or some of the clostridial bacteria (like blackleg).” With wet conditions and short grass, cattle may be grazing close to the ground and could pick up some of these pathogens.

Importance Of Necropsies - “As environmental conditions change, the risk of some diseases will increase or decrease. When the risk increases, a person should keep an eye open for cattle that die acutely. A thorough necropsy on those cattle is always a good idea, to find out why they died,” Dominguez says. This gives you a chance to possibly protect the rest of the animals, either with vaccination or moving them out of that particular pasture.

“Some people shrug their shoulders, drag off the dead calf and hope for no more deaths.” But by the time the 3rd or 4th one dies a person might wish they'd checked the first one to know what disease they are facing.

“Any time there is an unexpected death, it's a good idea to have the veterinarian come do a necropsy and other diagnostic tests. This can help with a rancher's health plans, to make those plans more current and up-to-date as conditions change.”

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