Biosecurity, biocontainment, biological risk management. To the beef producer, these new buzzwords essentially mean the same thing — addressing the possibility of a disease organism or disease complex entering or spreading within a beef cattle operation.

We know disease transmission can't be completely avoided or eliminated. But some basic management principles can be employed to effectively keep a ranching or feeding operation as secure as possible from unwanted biological invasion.

In a landmark report, “Animal Health at the Crossroads” issued in July 2005, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) says safeguarding animal health is of paramount importance to the U.S. economy, public health and the food supply. But, the NAS says the U.S. animal health framework has been slow to validate and implement new scientific tools and technologies that could significantly enhance animal disease prevention. Among other things, it emphasizes that better diagnostic tests for identifying all animal diseases should be made a priority.

Thus, by default, the onus is on the production sector — working with the veterinary community to develop a community-based approach to livestock biosecurity. This means changing animal health paradigms and ranch management practices. But in most cases, it doesn't have to involve significant increases in out-of-pocket operating costs.

Biosecurity will increase time spent on management, planning and recordkeeping. Biosecurity doesn't require that you operate your ranch in a totally enclosed, controlled environment. It's systematic, not a single action or set of actions. A sound animal biosecurity program is like an insurance policy for the productivity of the herd.

Unfortunately, much of our livestock biosecurity mentality has been formed around prevention and reaction to threats of catastrophic foreign animal disease, especially foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). And, while FMD poses a very real and dangerous threat to the health of our livestock herds, it's in applying biosecurity practices to more common livestock diseases that we can routinely achieve a return on investment.

Biosecurity is not a cure

A great example of a biosecurity practice is the calf scours complex. In the Sandhills Calving System, researchers realized that if they could keep conditions as they are the first week of calving, perhaps the rest of the season could be more disease-free. In this system, groups of pregnant cows are strategically moved to new, clean calving pastures through the calving season. Cow-calf pairs stay grouped in pastures according to the calves' ages.

If scours does develop in a Sandhills system, it can be contained on an individual pasture instead of being spread through the entire calf crop. Like any biosecurity practice, starting out with a plan before calving season is the key.

Whether FMD or calf scours, producers, with the help of a qualified veterinarian, must make decisions about the risk-tolerance level they will accept based on the chances of a disease occurring and the expected economic losses from the disease. Improving an animal's disease resistance is the heart of disease prevention and one foundation of biosecurity.

Another principle of biosecurity surrounds animal movement — as demonstrated by the Sandhills system. Beef cattle producers can learn some lessons from the poultry and swine industries about keeping pathogens out of, and away from, their herds.

Remember, biosecurity isn't a cure in the face of a disease outbreak. That's like trying to open a savings account in the face of bankruptcy. Biosecurity planning must begin before disease strikes — and a commitment to long-term planning will yield the best results.

Ranch and feedlot practices

  • Vaccinate against all endemic diseases.
  • Screen animals for suspected disease problems.
  • Quarantine newly acquired animals or reintroduced animals.
  • Isolate sick animals in a designated hospital pen.
  • Keep records of all disease occurrences and treatments.
  • Work younger or healthier animals first, then older higher risk animals.
  • Practice “all-in, all-out” animal movement in pens and pastures.
  • Know incoming animals' health history.
  • Purchase feed from reputable sources.
  • Don't place cattle of different ages in the same pen.
  • Control and monitor access to your operation.
  • Try to place receiving and load-out facilities at the perimeter of the operation.
  • Clean boots and clothing when working animals with different health status.
  • Euthanize chronically sick animals.
  • Have your vet necropsy animals that die from unknown causes.
  • Promptly dispose of dead animals.