As veterinarians that embrace preventive medicine as the key to healthy and profitable cattle, our thoughts, even in a disease outbreak, turn to those of "How could we have prevented this?"

We get phone calls from producers experiencing severe disease outbreaks and they list all of the treatments they've used, many of which provide no help. Some lament that the vaccinations also provide no protection. Why is it that some farms and ranches seem to have disease outbreaks year after year? Yet, other operations almost never experience disease problems? Is it purely luck?

No, mostly it's because such operations have a health plan for their herds. Have you sat down with your herd-health veterinarian to develop a health plan for your herd? If not, now is the time to do so. To get you started, here are five tips for preventing disease in your herd.

1) Don't buy disease. This seems obvious, but this is a common way to introduce a new disease to the herd. Always ask the person in charge of the herd from which you have selected a purchase if the herd has any disease problems. Ask specifically about bovine viral diarrhea and Johne's Disease.

Better yet, have your veterinarian call the seller's veterinarian for information about the herd's health status. Of course, the seller's veterinarian must have his client's permission to disclose anything, but if the seller refuses to give his veterinarian such permission, that would be reason enough to look elsewhere to purchase cattle.

2) Spread them out. The more dense the animal population, the more likely disease will be present. Simple phrases like "exposure equals disease" or "the solution to pollution is dilution" are accurate.

Why does one Midwest operation calving in a mud lot in February have calf diarrhea while a herd just a mile down the road that begins calving in late April on pasture has none? A scouring calf produces billions of disease organisms. If there are 40 pairs on five acres, it's almost a guarantee that more calves will be exposed and they will amplify that pathogen. Billions of organisms turn into hundreds of billions. All neonates are "incubators of disease." They simply do not possess the level of immunity that an older animal possesses. If this same group of 40 cows calved on 80 acres of pasture, the chances of calf scours developing in the herd are many times less likely.

3) Don't buy animals at times of increased stress. Buying cow-calf pairs during your calving season is a high-risk proposition that could easily introduce a new disease to your herd. If you must buy animals during calving, quarantine the new animals for 30-60 days before introduction to your herd.

In fact, you should quarantine all new animal purchases for 30-60 days. Buying feeder cattle that are un-weaned or un-vaccinated results in increased stress at your feedlot. The purchase of preconditioned calves gives you a much greater opportunity to buy calves with reduced stress and less chance of disease than commodity calves.

Also, make every effort to buy a pen in a single draft or put separate groups together after a day or two. Trickling in additional cattle over several weeks is a classic strategy for recurring disease breaks.

4) Excellent nutrition. Having excellent nutrition in every stage of development is one of the greatest opportunities for prevention of disease in cattle. In many herds with constant nagging problems of disease, a nutritional deficiency could easily be responsible. This deficiency could be in any nutrient — protein, energy, vitamins, minerals or even water. Having a nutritionist as part of your preventive health team is vital.

5) Develop a herd health vaccination plan. Producers generally are surprised to learn that by working closely with a herd-health veterinarian, less money tends to be spent on vaccine and medication than if no veterinarian were involved. How can this be?

In herds where the veterinarian is progressive and up to date, only vaccines and medications that are necessary and effective are used. Many vaccines get used at the wrong time or without proper boosters, thus giving little or no disease protection. Such errors can cost you thousands of dollars over the course of a year.

And, it's important to realize that even proper use of vaccines doesn't allow you to ignore the principles described above. Your herd health veterinarian has the same goals that you do with regard to animal health. If you have healthy animals, you are more likely to be profitable and stay in the beef business. Search out a veterinarian with a focus on beef practice and use him or her to help design strategies to avoid disease.

Special thanks to Jim McKean, DVM, JD, for assistance with the legality of consent concerning the doctor-patient-client relationship.

Mike Apley, DVM, PhD, is an associate professor of beef production medicine at Iowa State University in Ames. W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical assistant professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.