Management First

The role of an animal health program in livestock farming

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Livestock farming is the backbone of farming in large parts of South Africa, especially in the more rural areas not suitable for crop production. Even on farms where it is not the main farming enterprise, it plays an important role in utilising land not suitable for crop production. On these farms it can help to improve cash flow, provide that extra little bit of money and be a stabilizing factor.

Whether it is the main or secondary farming enterprise, we need to make the most of it. To get the best out of livestock farming a few important rules need to be followed namely: management, management and again management! It is easier said than done, but something that we cannot escape from if we want to be successful livestock farmers.

Marketing percentage

In sheep (even with woollen breeds), goat and beef cattle breeding production systems, the main driver of economics is the marketing percentage achieved. Marketing percentage is the number of animals annually sold, per 100 females mated. By maximising the number of animals born (reproduction rate) and minimising mortalities (losses) during the year, the more animals will be available to be sold. Marketing percentage will differ from area to area and to production system to production system due to various variables, but we must always strive to maximise it.

Unfortunately it is not as simple as achieving a good marketing percentage only. The animals and produce sold (in the case of wool/mohair), must also be of such a quality that you will receive the best possible price per kg or animal, to maximise income. Costs should also be kept under control – especially fixed costs.

Many factors contribute in achieving a good marketing percentage. Proper nutrition (probably the most important factor), correct breeding principles (selection for adapted animals), an effective health program and minimising losses due to predators and theft, should get you far.

Role of animal health

The implementation and proper execution of an animal health program can play a major part in achieving a good marketing percentage as well as to ensure a good quality end-product to sell. Animal health has an impact on the following:

Reproduction:

Parasites and diseases could have a negative effect on the development of young growing animals that lead to delayed puberty and a lower life-time reproduction potential. Body condition score (BCS) has a major influence on reproduction and is directly linked to nutrition. Animals that are kept relative parasite free (internal and external) and are protected from contracting preventable diseases, will utilise nutrients efficiently to grow optimally and achieve the desired BCS to reproduce optimally.

The importance of trace mineral supplementation in supporting optimal reproduction rates is recognised worldwide. Trace minerals have a direct effect in terms of its role on specific reproduction physiology factors like semen quality and quantity, development of ova and the survival of embryo’s to name a few. It has also an indirect effect in terms of improved immunity. Improved immunity will increase resistance to disease and general well-being of animals that will have a positive effect on reproduction.

Optimising production and limiting mortalities:

Only animals that are free of parasites, have an optimal trace element status and don’t get sick, will be able to stay alive and contribute in achieving a proper marketing percentage. These animals will also grow optimally and produce quality products.

Elements of a health program

It is all good and well to have a health program, but is even more important to make sure that the 4 C’s are implemented. Perform the Correct action, at the Correct time, done in the Correct manner, with the Correct product.

Why the emphasis on a program? With so many aspects to manage on a daily basis, it is sometimes difficult to remember all the actions that need to be implemented, especially those that need to be performed in advance of a certain event. A program is therefore a management tool and a reminder to execute strategic actions that need to be performed on specific time slots during the production cycle ie. before mating, before lambing/calving, before weaning, after shearing etc. If a program is followed, at least 2 of the 4 C’s are covered – to perform the correct action at the correct time. To be able to get the most benefit from a program, it is advised that a breeding program (season/s) being implemented so that specific dates for specific actions can be pinned down. Tactical treatments will be dictated by factors such as the season, change in weather conditions, buy-inn of animals etc.

The following elements should ideally be included in an animal health program:

Vaccinations

Vaccination is like insurance – you either vaccinate and prevent probable losses, or you don’t vaccinate and take the brunt in the event of a disease outbreak. Certain vaccines need to be given at a certain stage in the production cycle - especially “live” vaccines. With most “inactivated” vaccines, a booster vaccination should be given within a specified time frame (if given for the first time), to achieve proper immunity. This booster vaccination is often neglected and should be included in the program.

Parasite control

Both internal and external parasite control must be included in a program. Control will help to maximise the utilization of nutrients, minimise the loss of condition during periods of poor nutrition and stress and enhance the general well-being of the animals. Ticks (mortalities due to tick borne diseases), lice (irritation and weight loss) and sheep scab (weight loss and effect on wool/hair quantity and quality), costs farmers a lot of money each year and need to be manage properly.

Trace mineral supplementation

Trace minerals are generally provided in oral form as part of commercial licks. It provides a baseline supplementation of trace minerals. During critical events in the production cycle like mating, lambing/calving, weaning and other stress situations, the need for trace minerals increases. A “TOP UP” injectable supplementation is advised to optimise trace mineral levels. With increased genetic potential of animals and to optimise reproduction, production and immunity, we are long past the time to only supplement trace minerals when deficiency symptoms are diagnosed! In a country known for sub-optimal trace mineral levels, production losses occurs long before deficiency symptoms are diagnosed.

Breeding soundness

This is an aspect that is often neglected! With the increase in the occurrence of sexually transmitted diseases, this should be a non-negotiable part of any program. Fertility (semen quality/quantity), physical soundness of reproductive organs, libido and testing for the presence of sexually transmitted diseases should be part and parcel of this exercise. This should be performed by a suitably qualified operator well in advance of the start of the breeding season, to be able to take corrective measures if needed. No amount of nutrition, trace mineral supplementation, selection, animals free of parasites etc. can replace the fertilisation of properly developed ova by fertile sperm - in the absence of sexually transmitted diseases!

In summary – although animal health generally contributes to less than 10-15% of annual production costs, it can have a major impact on the marketing percentage and quality of produce sold. Therefore a simple, yet efficient animal health program should be drafted and executed! Consult your local vet or contact your local animal health Technical Sales Advisor for assistance in drafting a suitable program for your specific conditions.

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