The ultimate guide to improve farm animal health

Everything you need to know the latest advancements in animal breeding, genetics, diseases, shelter, nutrition, using technology and future trends.

Read the whole guide or jump to a section of interest:

Why should you start with good genetics and breeding practices?
What is proper nutrition? And how should you think about this?
What should you do to ensure good health among your young animals?
How to prevent, identify, manage and treat diseases that can affect your animals?
What can you do to protect your animals from extreme heat, cold, wind and stress?
What are the future trends in animal management and technology with farm animals?
Where else can you learn about farm animals?
Can I improve my livestock enterprise with automatic pasture measurements?

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As a progressive livestock farmer, if you know that your profits are closely linked to healthy animals. More healthy animals mean better productivity and profits.

This is as important as it gets. But, urgent day-to-day tasks such as repairing the fence, pitching in for the farmworker on leave, and managing your farm accounts can take up a lot of your time. This means you spend very little thinking about ways to improve animal health.

I wrote this guide for you to help you think about various ways to improve the health of your animals.

If you're a veteran livestock farmer, this guide will help you systematically look at animal health. Otherwise, this guide will introduce you to ideas you may not be familiar with.

Let’s begin.

I'm sure you'll agree with me if I say that animal health is a complicated subject. It's complicated because it deals with topics from genetics to nutrition to disease management to protection. Let's look at all of them.

If you stick with me until the end, I will help you answer the following questions:

  1. Why should you start with good genetics and breeding practices?
  2. What is proper nutrition? And how should you think about this?
  3. What should you do to ensure good health among your young animals?
  4. How to prevent, identify, manage and treat diseases that can affect your animals?
  5. What can you do to protect your animals from extreme heat, cold, wind and stress?
  6. What are the future trends in animal management and technology with farm animals?
  7. Where else can you learn about farm animals?
  8. Can I improve my livestock enterprise with automatic pasture measurements?

Why should you start with good genetics and breeding practices?

Ever since humans started domesticating animals, several thousands of years ago, we’ve been using selective breeding practices to enhance desirable traits in the animals we care for.

These traits are passed on from generation to generation through genes. Think of genes as small bits of living information in the cells of a living organism.

To take maximum advantage of thousands of years of experimentation, you need to start with a good foundation of genetics and breeding practices.

Disease management, nutrition, and genetics and breeding make up the animal health pyramid.
Good genetics is the foundation among the three basic clocks of animal management.

Genetics can help you produce animals that can withstand heat stress better. Or in other cases, it can help you produce animals that convert feed to body-weight very efficiently.

Farmers have intuitively known about the benefits of selective breeding. And now science is backing up their claims.

According to this CGIAR report, improved ruminant genetics increase animals' resilience to climate-related stresses, increases reproductive performance and can achieve emission reductions up to 26%.

Did you hear that? Improved genes can even help you significantly lower emissions, and solve the biggest problem of our industry.

But, how else can good genetics and breeding help you?

To answer that, let’s explore another question. Did you know that the number of cattle in livestock farms have decreased over the past decade? And yet, we now produce more beef and milk than ever before.

How?

Because genetic advancements helped farmers like you breed animals that covert the same amount of feed into more meat or milk. In turn, this resulted in improved livestock production and lower production costs.

To put it another way, good genetics and breeding practices can help you earn more profits.

You can select breeds that have one or more of the following traits:

  • High Fertility
  • High Growth Rate
  • High Feed Efficiency
  • Better Body Measurements
  • Longevity
  • Carcass Merit
  • Higher Milk Yields

That said, repeated inbreeding can cause several undesirable traits and health disorders in your animals. So take care to avoid this.

Most countries now have animal breeding programs. Talk to your local farm extension officer or advisor to get more information on genetic traits and breeds you would want for your weather and location.

What is proper ruminant nutrition, and how should you think about this?

All animals need adequate amounts of energy, protein, minerals and vitamins in their diets. Cattle, goat and sheep are no different. Proper nutrition will provide enough quantity and quality fodder to help your animals grow, maintain body weight and remain healthy.

Energy Value

First, let’s look at energy value in the diet of your animals. Metabolisable Energy (ME), is expressed as megajoules per kilogram of dry matter (MJ/kg DM). This simply means how much energy your animal can get from a kilo of dry matter.

ME will differ based on the type of feed. Most improved pasture varieties such as alfalfa, clover, lucerne and ryegrass have ME values between 11 and 12 MJ/ Kg DM. While cereal crops such as barley, wheat, sorghum and rice have ME values between 13 and 15 MJ/ Kg DM.

Energy requirements of a large ruminant.
Metabolisable Energy (ME); Total Digestible nutrients (TDN). Source: Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (1984)

Protein Content

Next, let’s look at protein content. It’s often expressed as a % of dry matter. Along with energy, protein will cost you the most. So, it’s important to ensure that you get quality protein under a reasonable budget.

Improved pasture varieties such as clover and lucerne have a high protein content of about 14% to 15% per Kg DM. Most cereals have lower protein content in the range of 7% to 11% per Kg DM.

Protein requirements for a lactating dairy cow.
Source: Target 10 (1999)

In case you don’t meet protein requirements through grazing and feeds, concentrates such as oil cakes and fishmeal that have a very high protein content of 33% and 63% respectively can help you address the deficit.

Minerals & Vitamins

Animals need major minerals, such as calcium (Ca), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), magnesium (Mg), sodium (Na) and sulphur (S) for many physiological functions. Adequate availability of these major minerals will ensure higher production.

In addition to this, your animals also need minor minerals, such as copper (Cu), cobalt (Co), selenium (Se), zinc (Zn) and a range of essential vitamins in smaller trace quantities to maintain growth and health.

Because minerals and vitamins account for a tiny proportion of daily dry matter intake in your animal’s diet, it can sometimes be overlooked. But your animals need it to develop strong bones, improve immunity, and maintain good nervous system functions.

A good mineral and vitamin supplementation program will cost you approximately $15 to $25 per head per year. So don’t skimp on this small investment, because it will pay for itself, several times over, in terms of improved production. Ask your farm advisor for how much supplements your animals need.

Water

In addition to this, your animals also need a lot of clean water as part of their diets. For instance, lactating dairy cows in the tropics require 60 to 70 L of water per day for maintenance, plus an extra 4 to 5 L for each litre of milk produced. So, high yielding cows need about 150 to 200 litres of water during a hot day.

How to ensure good health among your young animals?

Healthy calves are the future of your farm and business. This cannot be stressed enough. So managing newborn calves for their first hundred days, is very important, and requires special attention.

Colostrum

Colostrum, the first milk produced by the cow after giving birth, is thick and yellow. It contains antibodies and other elements that help the calf boost its immunity.

The calf should be encouraged to consume as much of colostrum as possible, within the first two days, after birth. Suckling is better than feeding it in buckets because it allows better mother-calf bonding and according to research also allows for better uptake of antibodies.

Milk Feeding

After colostrum, the cow will start producing regular milk. A calf should typically get milk, equivalent to 10 per cent its body weight. This will help it achieve a daily weight gain of approximately 500 grams.

So, assuming the calf weighs 50 kilos at birth, it should get at least 5 litres of milk daily. This amount may be divided into 2 or 3 portions. The calf should consume the milk immediately after milking, to reduce risk of infections.

Dairy cows and calves in a paddock of grass chewing cud.
Healthy calves are the future of your farm and business.

Limiting Water Intake

Unlike adult cows, calves cannot limit the amount of water they drink. So you'll have to restrict water intake for them. Depending on the weather, provide about one to two litres of water per day, for the calf to drink.

If a calf over drinks water, it may cause red urine. So be careful about this. Needless to say, once the calf grows up, give it access to plenty of water, all the time.

Calf Pellets

Energy-rich calf pellets can be added to the milk from around the third week.

At first, add only a few spoons of these pellets. And then gradually increase quantities to the recommended dose. This will help you avoid digestion problems.

Salt Licks

While the cow’s milk will contain some minerals, they may not be sufficient for the rapidly growing calf. So salt lick blocks can be used to address the deficit by licking. Today, you can buy these salt blocks from various veterinary pharmacies in your neighbourhood.

Deworming & Tick Control

Once your calves start grazing with other cows, they will get worms and ticks. It is essential to control them by deworming them once every three months and routine tick control measures. If possible, you can consider letting in the calves to graze separately.

Social support

A calf should be allowed the company of other calves and cows. This is how they will learn to run, sleep and play together. This will also help your calves eat well and be active.

Have you noticed how calves and cows lick each other? This provides skincare and at the same time, also develops strong social bonds between the animals.

To learn more about taking care of calves, read:

How to prevent, identify, manage and treat diseases that can affect your animals?

Diseases are a significant threat to your cattle, sheep and goats. Typically, diseases are caused by:

  • Infections from bacteria, viruses or fungi
  • Parasite infestations
  • Nutritional deficiencies, excesses or imbalances
  • Metabolic disorders

Your animals may not always show visible signs of disease. However, most diseases will reduce growth, reproduction, and production. So you must be on the watch for any disease outbreak.

A few common diseases you should know about are:

Bovine Virus Diarrhea Virus (BVDV)

The Bovine Pestivirus causes this, it's a viral infection. Animals get affected by this when they get in touch with the bodily secretions of other infected animals. So it is essential to isolate infected animals.

Blood tests can determine if individual animals have been infected with the BVDV. And a bulk milk ELISA test can be used to gauge the immunity of the milking herd. There are no specific treatments for BVDV. It subsides on its own, once all the infected animals either recover or die.

Bovine Johne's Disease (BJD)

The bacteria Mycobacterium paratuberculosis causes this. Symptoms include diarrhea, reduced milk production, weight loss and eventually death. Animals get affected by ingesting contaminated feces.

It is difficult to reliably detect infection in live animals, particularly in the early stages of the disease. You can control spread by isolating young calves from infected animals. And by culling infected animals to reduce shedding of Mycobacterium paratuberculosis into the environment.

Bluetongue

The bluetongue virus may cause fever, small ulcers and bleeding in the mouth and nose, dribbling of saliva and nasal discharges in your animals. Lab tests of blood samples can confirm bluetongue virus infection.

The disease is transmitted from animal to animal by biting midges from the Culicoides family. These midges feed on infected animals, and the virus multiplies in their salivary glands before being injected into another animal. There is no effective treatment for bluetongue.

Salmonella

Infections occur across a range of animals, birds and reptiles. Salmonella can move from one animal species to another. It is often carried in the gut of animals and birds or by spreading effluent from affected animals on pastures. Young calves and lactating cows are particularly susceptible.

Contamination of feed and water with fecal material can cause large scale outbreaks. This can cause gastroenteritis in people. In case of an outbreak, you need to act quickly and promptly treat infected animals with antibiotics to save lives and slow the spread of the disease.

Q fever

A bacterial infection of Coxiella burnetii causes this. Animals get affected by ingesting the urine, milk, feces or placental fluids of an infected animal. It is also very easy for people to catch Q fever, causing prolonged fever and headaches.

In some cases, people develop severe lung, liver, heart or brain problems. Animals with Q fever aren’t treated, but infected people need medical attention to avoid complications.

To learn more about diseases that can affect your animals, read resources by:

How to protect your animals from extreme heat, cold, wind, stress and climate change?

Over the last decade, the frequency of heatwaves, drought and floods have all increased, dramatically.

The USA experienced an average of two heatwaves per year during the 1960s. Now they experience more than six per year. In Australia, the annual number of record hot days has more than doubled since the 1950s.

This trend of heat waves becoming more frequent, hotter and longer is true across most parts of the world.

The other side of this story is that extreme rainfall and extreme lack of rain is also becoming more common. Across the world, wet places are becoming wetter. And dry places are becoming drier.

Also, the number of rainy days are getting lower. This means when it rains it rains a lot and doesn't rain at all for an extended period. In other words, drought and floods are also going to become part of your reality.

Climate change is causing extreme weather patterns. And you need to get ready for this. You need to find ways to protect your animals from frequent heatwaves, droughts and floods.

Here are four things that you can do to reduce the impact of these extreme weather events.

First, grow more trees on your farm. Because trees can help you reduce heat stress effects, improve animal health and increase productivity.

Second, invest in ceiling fans and water sprinklers to cool down your animal shed and yard. Putting these things in place is worth the effort and investment. It pays for itself over a single drought.

Third, harvest water from rain, to buffer yourself against drought. Harvest rainwater wherever possible off roofs and hard surfaces in storage tanks. Next, harvest excess run-off in ponds. And finally, harvest maximum water for free in your soil.

Finally, consider digging a few trenches in strategic locations across your farm to help you quickly drain excess water into your ponds. You can also plant water-loving and flood-tolerant trees in low lying areas.

I hope this gives you some food for thought. These measures will help you reduce costs, improve animal health and increase your profits in the long run. It is indeed worth it.

To learn more about protecting your animals and adapting your farm to climate change, read:

Two future trends are set to influence animal management practices in the near future strongly.

First, the demand for livestock products is rising. At the same time, the numbers of farmers are reducing. Simply put, this means that in the near future, fewer farmers will manage more animals.

And secondly, there is a clear mandate to produce milk and meat with lower water and carbon footprints.

Together, these two trends are poised to change the livestock industry as we know it today.

For instance, leading companies like Bosch are now investing heavily into R&D of artificial intelligence-based precision livestock farming systems. Systems that can automatically give you quality information about your herd, telling you how many animals are on the pasture and how many of them are healthy.

Bosch a leader in field and animal sensor technology.

On the other hand, several companies have now developed low-cost GPS-based collars to help farmers like you manage their animals.

In addition to this, there is now equipment available to detect when cows are in heat, calving, or have contracted infectious diseases and metabolic disorders.

According to the latest research (Bewley, 2016 and Caja et al., 2016), these advancements have significant potential to expand the boundaries of animal welfare.

And of course, there is the dark horse, of lab-grown food becoming a reality in the next few decades. Until all of these technologies become mainstream, the world still depends on farmers like you.

But, farmers themselves are turning to technology, to lower production costs and increase profits. One clear example of this is dairy and beef farmers using satellite technology services such as Pasture.io to measure and manage their pastures.

Farmers like Stuart Barr, a dairy farmer from Ringarooma, Tasmania now makes an additional profit of 80,000 dollars, every year on his dairy farm. Just by using Pasture.io to help him manage his pasture.

Where else can you learn about farm animals?

Measure and manage your pasture automatically for $15/ ha/ year

Measuring and managing your pasture can help you improve animal health and your profits. Pasture-feeding, your animals, provide a balanced nutritionally rich diet. It also helps you save feed costs and increase production.

If conventional ways of measuring your pasture are too cumbersome and costly, you can consider an automatic pasture measurement service such as Pasture.io. We use artificial intelligence and high-resolution satellite imagery to help you automatically measure pasture growth.

We also factor in local weather and data from your farm. The weather data helps factor in seasonal weather changes, and the farm data helps factor other important local variables such as when your cows last grazed a particular paddock or when a paddock was last fertilised.

This means we can help you measure pasture growth until 3,500 Kg DM/ha with reasonable confidence to help you utilise surplus pasture effectively. And is something that other pasture growth measurement tools or services cannot offer.

We have a simple pricing structure. You play a flat fee of AUD 1,099 per year, and then pay AUD 8 per hectare per year. So, if you own 150 hectares, you will pay about AUD 15 per hectare per year. And in case you want something simpler; we also offer you a free plan that costs you nothing.

Please check out our free and paid plans. It will change your life and your pasture for the better.

Happy Farming!