“A few years ago, biosecurity was one of those terms you heard only in limited circles. Outside of some high-security labs, we really didn’t see the term biosecurity,” says Dave Dargatz, a veterinarian with the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS).

But events of the past decade or so have brought the concept of biosecurity into the living room. And, as a result, to the feedyard gate as well.

Biosecurity, Dargatz says, is simply the exclusion of disease agents. And those agents aren’t limited to just viruses and bacteria – anything that could be harmful to the animals in your feedyard, such as toxins in the feed, should be considered.

To find out how extensively feedyards use biosecurity measures, NAHMS surveyed feedyards last year. Its Feedlot 2011 survey yielded some interesting results.

One of the overriding challenges in feedyard animal health is that feedyards often receive cattle from many different sources. This is particularly true in larger feedyards, defined as those with a capacity of 8,000 head or more. And while that creates any number of health challenges for cattle that stay in the feedyard, it’s even more of a concern for cattle that may go back out on pasture, because those cattle may bring some unintended and unwelcome hitchhikers with them.

Overall, 17.1% of the feedlots surveyed had some animals leave the feedlot and return to a breeding or stocker operation. “For feedlot animals destined to return to breeding or grazing operations, biocontainment practices, primarily segregation, could be one way to mitigate the spread of certain pathogens,” NAHMS says in a report of its survey findings.
 
Of the feedyards that housed cattle destined to leave the feedyard and go back to pasture, 49.6%  provided a segregated area for breeding cattle. Meanwhile, 44.1% provided a segregated area for stocker cattle that prevented them from coming into direct contact with cattle on feed for slaughter.

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Visitors can also present biosecurity concerns, NAHMS reports. However, it appears that feedyards are doing a good job of limiting nonessential visitors, as the three most common classes of visitors reported included veterinarians (95.3%), livestock haulers (91.8%), and nutritionists (89%).

Overall, 25.1% of feedyards displayed signage directing that visitors check in at the office. However, only 10.3% of feedlots with a capacity of 1,000-7,999 head displayed such signs, compared with 60.6% of feedyards with capacities greater than 8,000 head. Most feedyards did not provide protective outerwear to visitors, but 65.7% limited access to animal areas and 59.9% restricted vehicles from animal areas. Restricting visitor access to animal areas was more common on the 8,000-or-larger feedyards (88%) than on smaller feedlots (56.3%).

Just as with visitors, employees who have contact with animals outside the feedyard can bring hitchhikers of the nefarious kind with them when they come to work. However, contact with livestock outside the feedlot was not commonplace – overall, 53.2% of full-time employees who handled cattle had no contact with livestock on other operations, and 59.7% of employees did not own any livestock.

Another control point in the spread of disease is the rolling stock. Using the same equipment to clean pens and move cattle feed can increase the risk of disease transmission. Of feedyards with capacities of greater than 8,000 head, 64.8% never used the same equipment to handle manure and feed. In contrast, only 36.8% of the smaller feedlots used different loaders for the two tasks. For operations that used the same equipment, 81% washed with water or steam, and 6.3% washed and chemically disinfected the equipment between uses.

For more on the NAHMS Feedlot 2011 survey, go to http://nahms.aphis.usda.gov/feedlot.