Everyday Herd Health

Six Common Ailments and the Mistakes that Make Them Worse

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Bringing home some new stock? Separate them from the rest of the herd for seven to 10 days to be sure there are no health issues.(Progressive Farmer photo by Victoria G. Myers)

Sometimes in the cattle business, it pays to keep things simple. Most herd health problems, for example, aren't the result of a rare disease or a genetic defect. They are more likely about the management and prevention of known ailments.

Veterinarian Ken McMillan is a large-animal practitioner in Cropwell, Alabama, and a Hereford cattle producer. After more than 30 years in the business, McMillan won't say he's seen it all, but he admits he's seen a lot. He says the most important thing cattle producers can do to improve herd health is to develop a good veterinarian-client-patient relationship. That should, at the very least, include an annual farm visit. It's a producer's chance to discuss concerns and ask how the operation might be improved. It might be a good opportunity to ask about some of these common issues.


WHAT IT IS. This infectious disease destroys red blood cells and can lead to death. It is transmitted animal to animal through blood-sucking insects or contaminated needles or surgical instruments, such as castrators.

VISIBLE SIGNS. Dead cattle are often the first sign. Before that, weakness and a refusal to drink water or eat often signal an infection. As it progresses, skin around eyes, lips and teats become pale or jaundiced. Rapid weight loss is common. Animals may fall and not be able to get up.

TREATMENT. After the first signs of anaplasmosis, cattle will either begin to recover in about four days, or they will die. This disease is best not treated once it's past the early stages. Cattle that recover can be carriers for the rest of their lives. A blood test can identify carriers. A year-round control program using antibiotics to keep outbreaks from occurring is not uncommon. Your veterinarian will have to show there is anaplasmosis in the herd to be able to prescribe a medicated feed or mineral containing chlortetracycline. Other treatment options may include vaccinations for noncarriers or oxytetracycline to temporarily clear up carriers.

COMMON MISTAKES. McMillan says in nonendemic areas, one of the biggest issues with anaplasmosis is a lot of producers don't think it affects them.

"No matter where they are in the U.S., cattle can be affected by this," he stresses. "It is a ubiquitous disease. We move cattle so much, and there are numerous ways it can spread, so it can become an issue quickly. If it's not on a producer's radar, he may never realize what he's dealing with until it's too late."

The cases that tend to get producers' attention are those with clinical symptoms. But, McMillan notes those subclinical cases are stealing from cattle operations every day. "It's anemia, and it affects cattle more than most producers realize," he says. "It's important to trace this back so you know how it got into the herd. This may help you avoid it moving forward."


WHAT IT IS. A buildup of gas doesn't sound so serious, but in a cow, it can mean death in as little as an hour. Bloat can occur when cattle graze lush forage that's low in fiber and highly digestible. It's most common on immature legume pastures, including clover and alfalfa.

VISIBLE SIGNS. Things can go wrong as little as 15 minutes after turnout to a bloat-producing pasture. The cow's rumen becomes distended (left side), she urinates and frequently defecates, bellows and staggers. Death results from restricted breathing and heart failure.

TREATMENT. Remove animals from the pasture and offer dry hay. Force bloated animals to walk to cause belching. Move calmly, as breathing is already impaired. If the cow continues in distress, stomach tubing to release gas may be necessary. Other options include a dose of vegetable or mineral oil to rupture foamy gas bubbles (10 to 12 ounces per 1,000 pounds); or, use a trocar as a last result. This is best done by a veterinarian.

COMMON MISTAKES. It's important to think before turning a bunch of hungry cattle out into lush pastures, McMillan says. "Try to fill them up on some feed or hay first. Free-choice feeding, especially on legumes that have dew on them in the morning, is a recipe for disaster. Wait till the dew dries and limit-graze them."

One reason cattle will overeat is feeding on an infrequent basis. So, "don't let creep feeders run out," McMillan cautions. He notes this is often the first step to bloat.

Really any change in diet can cause a problem, he explains. "Feeding on an infrequent basis, putting out too much food at one time or feeding the wrong things … these can all result in digestive upset. The key is a balanced ration."

Lastly, he recommends the use of minerals with ionophores and bloat blocks as precautions.


WHAT IT IS. A common ailment, foot rot is an infectious disease often caused by the bacterium F. necrophorum. Once infected, animals spread the bacteria in their environment. It is an issue in high heat and humidity, where the ground is hard or covered with rocks, or even stubble. Standing in mud or water can further spread the disease.

VISIBLE SIGNS. Look for decaying, swelling or foreign objects in the interdigital skin. Fever, weight loss, decreased milk and reluctance to breed are common.

TREATMENT. For mild cases, clean the foot and apply a topical treatment. Most often, antimicrobial therapy will be needed with an anti-inflammatory to help with pain. Keep affected animals in a dry area until healed. If there's no improvement in three to four days, reevaluate.

COMMON MISTAKES. Mineral nutrition is not the first thing producers think about when an animal has a case of foot rot, but McMillan says it should be. "With foot rot, you have to make sure you have adequate zinc in your feed or your minerals. Copper and selenium are also very important," he explains.

Poor sanitation where cattle congregate is a common issue. Standing in mud softens feet and provides a habitat for bacteria. Rotate pastures, and avoid wet areas.

Often, the beginning of foot rot is some injury. Be cautious putting cattle on pasture with stubble, on cutover timberland, in rocky areas or on hard, icy frozen ground.


WHAT IT IS. Old tires used to hold feed or water are common sources of this ailment. As they erode and rot, cattle ingest the wire. Cattle also pick up odds and ends around the farm, so be vigilant about metal scraps.

VISIBLE SIGNS. Wire can get trapped in a cow's reticulum, where it may puncture the wall, let the stomach contents leak through and cause peritonitis. If metal penetrates into the thoracic cavity and the heart, heart failure may result.

TREATMENT. Prevention is the key here. Keep feeders and feeding areas free of exposed wire or metal. Use magnets in feed mixers to pull out any hazardous materials.

COMMON MISTAKES. McMillan says he sees less hardware disease now, but it can still be a problem.

"Hardware disease is something people don't tend to think of when they have a cow that isn't doing well," he notes. "They want to treat her for worms and see her get better, but she just never does. Maybe she's losing weight, is walking stiffly or appears sore or cramped up. Hardware disease can be a severe and quick end, or something chronic that goes on for a long time."


WHAT IT IS. Infectious bovine keratoconjunctivitis (IBK) is one of the most common diseases in beef cattle. It's contagious and spreads animal to animal, often by flies. Tall weeds or grasses that rub the eyes can be a source, along with dust. Some breeds are more sensitive to it.

VISIBLE SIGNS. Early in the course of the disease, look for tearing and light sensitivity. As pain increases, cattle will tend to eat less and seek shade more. Look for an ulcer in the center of the cornea. It appears as a small, white spot. The eye will look cloudy. The disease continues to progress until this ulcer extends through the cornea.

TREATMENT. Treat pink eye early and adopt preventive management practices. Tetracyclines are often effective early. Keep fly populations down and pastures cut, and have enough feeders so there is less crowding.

COMMON MISTAKES. Environmental control and vector control are often missed opportunities in the battle against pink eye. McMillan also stresses the need for biosecurity when bringing new animals onto the premises.

"Keep pastures cut so cattle aren't getting hit in the eyes with seedheads as they graze. Next, control flies. They carry the infection from animal to animal."

He adds animals with no signs of pink eye can be carriers. "That's why we need to isolate new animals for a few weeks, so we can be sure they aren't exposing the rest of the herd to something like pink eye. Biosecurity can prevent a lot of problems for the average producer."


WHAT IT IS. Scours is diarrhea caused by viruses, parasites or bacteria. Young calves are most susceptible. Changes in feed, or even quantity, can lead to this condition.

VISIBLE SIGNS. Scours is most common within the first 15 days of life. Loss of water and electrolytes can lead to weight loss, depression and weakness to the point a calf does not have the strength to nurse. Death, without treatment, is not uncommon in less than 24 hours.

TREATMENT. Keep calving areas clean and dry. Warming boxes, common in cold climates, can be breeding grounds for the bacteria and viruses that cause scours. Isolate scouring calves and dams, and replace fluids and electrolytes. If a bacterial infection is the cause, an antibiotic may help. Most importantly, make sure all newborn calves receive adequate colostrum from their dams; otherwise, administer replacement colostrum.

COMMON MISTAKES. Calf scours really start with the cow. McMillan notes the passive transfer of immunity, given through colostrum, is critical to keeping scours out of the calf herd.

"She should be in good body condition, have excellent nutrition, minerals, be current on vaccinations," the veterinarian says. "Anything we can do to make that dam stronger and her colostrum better is worth it if you're worried about scours."

He advocates the use of calving protocol that follows the Sandhills System. "This is basically about making sure calves are born into a clean environment," he says. "In this system, cows are moved through a set of pastures, so calving areas remain clean for each calving group."


Victoria Myers