Effective biosecurity — preventing the introduction of pathogens — in the stocker business is a lot like protecting your new pickup from some Wal-Mart Ninja with nickel eyesight and a borrowed shopping cart. Have a plan before arrival, and never be bashful about putting distance between varmints and their prey.

“The stocker industry is defined by some unique characteristics in that young cattle are often acquired from multiple locations and buyers and may be transported long distances to the stocker operation,” says Jan Sargeant, DVM. She's an assistant professor at Kansas State University's (KSU) Food Animal and Health Management Center.

“The mixing of cattle from multiple sources leads to substantial opportunity for the introduction of disease and the stressful conditions often associated with disease occurrence,” she says.

In fact, Dee Griffin, DVM, professor and Extension veterinarian with the University of Nebraska (NU) Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences Department, points out: “Of all of the possible breakdowns in biosecurity, the introduction of new cattle and traffic pose the greatest risk to cattle health.”

A recent KSU survey lends perspective. The study found that 43% of stocker operators reported purchasing cattle from more than one state; some brought in cattle from 10 or more states. Given that scenario, few would argue that preventing problems is more cost-effective than treating them.

“There are really three issues associated with biosecurity — isolation, traffic control and sanitation,” says Griffin.

First of all, Griffin explains that even in high-turnover cattle businesses like stocker operations, isolating new arrivals is the most important step in disease control.

“A classic example is the guy who gets a group of calves in and puts them in a grass trap. Because it's not a full group, he waits until another group arrives and then puts them together. Boom! Both groups blow,” says Sargeant.

She adds: “Recognize that cattle are not the only source of infectious disease. We also need to control cattle exposure to people, dead cattle, non-domestic species (including wildlife and rodents), equipment and vehicles.”

That's what Griffin calls traffic control — identifying and controlling how bacteria can spread from one group of cattle to another, primarily through feces. As an example, Griffin says a person may be meticulous about keeping birds and raccoons from defecating on feed. But then he'll drive a pick-up out of the lot or pasture and across a feed holding area where feces can drop off the pickup and later be mixed with the feed.

“Particularly in this day and age, traffic control should include keeping track of who is coming on the operation,” Sargeant adds. In the unlikely event of a foreign animal disease (FAD) outbreak, it would be a head start to identifying the potential source as well as preventing its spread.

“Besides isolation and traffic control, it's pretty basic hygiene. Be clean first, then be dry because bacteria don't like to live in a dry environment,” says Griffin.

Griffin explains that the main objective with sanitation is preventing fecal contamination of a stocker's oral cavity. Any equipment that will come in contact with an animal's mouth or with the feed that goes in that mouth should be a prime sanitation target.

Rather than the offenders some think of immediately, such as multiple-use needles — which aren't a major culprit in diseases associated with stockers, says Griffin — the source of infection can be the mundane. Say an oral capsule that drops in the dirt (and feces) that you pick up and use anyway.

Maybe it's the balling gun or the stomach tube that you leave lying around. Or, maybe it's the same equipment you've actually been trying to keep clean — equipment you leave in the bucket of disinfectant, for instance. If you're not careful, the bacteria overwhelm the disinfectant so that the equipment is really soaking in bacterial soup.

“Each of these issues has a place in the stocker operation to minimize the diseases we may be associated with after cattle arrive,” says Griffin.

Of course, even when stocker operators play by biosecurity rules, pre-arrival travails can conspire to transform a solid set of calves on sale day into a bunch of wheezing, sneezing money suckers on arrival.

That's why Griffin says it's important to have background on the cattle. In addition to a valid health certificate, he suggests buyers ask for cattle history. “It doesn't assure you that cattle haven't been contaminated, but it does give you some assurance of what they've been exposed to,” he says.

Short of knowing cattle health management history, Sargeant emphasizes preconditioned and single-source cattle can increase biosecurity assurance.

“Pre-arrival is also where a biosecurity plan begins because transportation can be the first breakdown if a truck gets delayed or cattle must travel phenomenally long distances,” says Sargeant. “Cattle that get sick are cattle that are stressed.”

That in mind, Sargeant suggests producers:

  • minimize holding and transportation time,

  • avoid over-crowding and

  • maximize cattle comfort by providing adequate footing and avoiding weather extremes and rough handling.

Moreover, pre-arrival management assumes an overall biosecurity strategy is already in place. Sargeant prefers a plan designed in tandem with the operation's veterinarian, nutritionist and others responsible for care of the cattle.

“First, you assess what is or isn't likely to be a problem, what the potential bugs are, how likely the cattle are to become infected and how much it would cost if they were infected,” says Sargeant. “From there, you determine how you can manage the potential.”

As an example, Sargeant explains, “The outbreak of a foreign animal disease like foot-and-mouth would be devastating. So, we must always be vigilant for unusual disease symptoms or unexpectedly high morbidity or mortality rates.”

By the same token, while the relative cost of a bovine respiratory disease outbreak isn't as high, the odds of cattle contracting it are much higher. Therefore, that's where a lion's share of focus should be. The same goes for specific health challenges relative to particular regions, cattle and seasons.

It's really a matter of determining acceptable levels of risk, which are as diverse as the perceptions and personalities of those doing the bean counting. Plus, there are no solid standards to use for comparison.

“There's good documentation that for every clinical case we see there are lots more calves infected but without clinical symptoms whose performance is impacted,” says Sargeant. “But the industry doesn't yet have anything saying a specific program prevents a specific loss at a specific cost.” As such, morbidity and mortality remain the standard benchmarks of effectiveness for most producers.

Even so, Sargeant explains operators must keep records to gauge the effectiveness of their program, which means cattle must be identified in some way. In the KSU study cited earlier, fewer than half of responding stocker operators employed individual identification, and almost 20% don't keep health records.

“At a minimum and easily obtained is source, how far the cattle have come, breed type and whether or not they're part of a mixed group,” says Sargeant. Some producers, she says, track cattle by more specific information such as pasture, truck line and even individual drivers.

Really, Griffin believes figuring out what to include in a plan and what to monitor is common sense.

“I believe there's a yardstick you hold up against your practices: Does this activity contaminate the front end of the cow with excrement from the back end?” Griffin explains. “If the answer is no, or if there's only a slight chance, then everyone can be his own examiner.

“If the answer is yes, but we can still figure out a way to get done what we need to get done and still minimize the possibility of contamination, then we need to do it. If the answer is yes but there's no way to continue the current practice without contamination, then we have to figure out a new way of doing things that doesn't contaminate.”

Hold specific biosecurity wonders up to the light of these questions, and Griffin says you'll go a long way toward finding the answer in a variety of circumstances.

For more detailed information on stocker biosecurity and other stocker issues, visit www.beefstockerusa.org.