Juggling Responsibilities While Managing the Herd

For breeding, finishing, feeding or combined operations, managing the herd means juggling responsibilities.

Whatever livestock you’re raising, managing the herd means keeping your eye on the big picture, but never losing sight of any details. Although the exact range of management activities will differ with species, it will also differ within species, depending upon the type of operation you run.

“The types of herd management can vary widely, depending on whether the operation is a full life cycle, but all livestock farms need to maintain basics of good nutrition, animal health and external environmental conditions,” Jenn Colby, pasture program coordinator, University of Vermont (UVM) Center for Sustainable Agriculture, said. “I will always fall back on livestock handling and animal behavior as things that can make or break a farm’s success, regardless of livestock type. And also the concept – not a one-size-fits-all – that well-managed farms are more likely to make money.”

Every herd has its own needs and every farm its own goals, but the underlying concept of successful herd management remains the same. Keep the herd thriving and do so profitably.

“The major components of raising livestock are herd health, nutrition and reproduction. However, raising livestock for a living is a business, so you cannot merely maximize animal production or the sale price of the animal. You have to optimize your inputs and outputs to maintain a profitable business,” Colt Knight, University of Maine Assistant Professor of Extension – State Livestock Specialist, said.

Getting gain

“Basic nutritional needs include protein, to build muscles; carbohydrates, for metabolic processes of living and to fill in fat; water; and minerals, to build bone structure and for metabolic processes,” Colby said.

On pasture, farmers must work to optimize the forage nutrition, minimize the impact of the grazing herd on forage regrowth and match the nutritional needs of their animals with the availability of pasture forages. While the specifics vary from farm-to-farm, the basic concept of “grass farming” – taking care of the soil and forages in order to provide optimal animal nutrition – is unchanged. Intensive grazing rotations, harvesting forages to feed as hay and stockpiling forages for pasture grazing after the growing season has ended are some pasture management practices.

“One of the very best ways to get good nutrition on pasture is to move the animals as often as possible, at least twice per week,” Colby said. “This maintains the highest quality vegetation, distributes manure evenly – to fertilize plants evenly – and offers the animals choice of food. Studies have shown that if given choice, animals will balance their own rations quite well and at a lower cost, than our prepared diets can.”

Animals vary by species and even breed, in their ability to utilize pasture for nutrition and other feeds may be required for balanced nutrition. There may not be sufficient land for grazing, or the farm may prefer to feed grains along with forages for optimal gain, flavor or other market reasons. Livestock may be managed in an animal feeding operation – where animals are confined and have feed brought to them or may go outside but not actively graze for nutritional needs.

Prepared diets – whether being mixed from crops grown on the farm, or from packaged commercial feeds – rely on precise measures of fat, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals to provide optimal nutrition. Having a nutritionally balanced feed program, mixing feeds properly and making feed available to all animals at the right times, in a stress-free situation, promotes feed intake and increase daily gain.

“Testing forage and feed for its nutritional compositing allows the managers to formulate a diet that meets the needs of their animals while reducing unnecessary expenses,” Knight said. “Essentially, managers need to know what feed is available to them and how to formulate a diet to meet the needs of each animal economically. Cooperative Extension, veterinarians and feed companies often have experts that can help producers meet the dietary needs of their herds.”

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Profitability of a livestock operation can depend upon having a good feed-to-gain ratio. Getting the most daily gain, from the least amount and cost of feed, is the goal. Eliminating waste, whether through better mixing, higher quality feeds, regular feed pushups in barns or managing access to various feeds (such as hay when on pasture) reduces waste.

Herd health

Maintaining body condition through proper nutrition enhances health as well as reproductive capabilities. Although proper nutrition is the basis for herd health and productivity, other factors need to be managed to keep animals thriving.

Vaccination programs protect animals from common disease issues and act as preventatives. Antibiotics treat infections that have already developed – some of which could have been prevented with routine recommended vaccinations. Routine care, such as hoof trimming to prevent lameness, or de-worming, to prevent parasite infestations, is needed.

“As an Extension person, I typically recommend that farmers work with their veterinarians to develop a regular vaccine program that fits their goals,” Colby said. “Saving money by avoiding any visits by the vet, when a small number of regular visits will keep animals healthy,” is an example of poor herd management.

Other issues impacting herd health include environmental factors. Clean water, proper ventilation, sanitary bedding, uncrowded, stress-free living conditions and good animal handling practices all contribute to animal welfare. When moving animals, whether within a pasture or barn, loading them onto trailers, or into paddocks for treatment, “understanding animal behavior concepts that make the process easier and safer,” is key, Colby said.

Sick animal care may or may not require separation from the herd for treatment, as well as to reduce contamination concerns. This need should be balanced with the stress caused to the animal by being away from the herd, in light of desired outcomes.

Breeding and genetics

“If it’s a breeding farm, reproduction and genetics figure in heavily, as well as getting young animals started well and weaning them at the appropriate time and in appropriate ways for mother and offspring,” Colby said.

Timing of breeding, age at breeding, whether to use artificial insemination and selecting the breeding herd are significant factors. Many livestock farmers have developed their own selection criteria, whether for meat attributes, mothering ability, size, temperament or other desirable traits to improve their herd genetics.

“The most overlooked aspect of herd health is genetics,” Knight said. “Whenever possible, producers should purchase animals from reputable breeders with quality livestock. Through genetic testing, producers can select animals that will produce better and be healthier.”

Working with local genetics, rather than investing in new genetics, can often be a practice that limits herd productivity, Colby said. Again, it may appear to be cost-effective, but can have long-term adverse effects, as genetics are not improved.

“Once managers develop a herd of animals, they then cull out inferior animals and keep replacement females from their own herd. This improves the genetics of the herd, the farm begins to develop an adapted herd for their specific needs and prevents the spread of disease and parasites from replacements brought in from outside the farm,” Knight said. “Whenever possible, buy virgin males to help eliminate the chances of the males spreading sexually transmitted disease to the females.”

Often, infected males will cause pregnancies, which go undetected, as they end in early abortion. The male is then sold due to poor breeding ability. A new male is brought into the herd, breeds with now-infected females, becomes infected and the sexually transmitted disease continues to spread throughout the herd. If reproduction rates are low, potential disease should be considered.

“The most efficient way to improve herd genetics is by using superior male animals. The best genetics come from young males, because if we do our job correctly selecting animals, each generation should be better than the next,” Knight said. “Breeding soundness exams are great tools to evaluate the health of males and ensure they have the best chance to become productive members of the herd.”

Animal groups

Animals can be separated for many reasons other than illness. Although some farms practice multi-age groupings, others prefer to keep animals separated into groups by life cycle stage. Cow-calf groups, young stock finishing animals and breeding stock are often handled separately.

“Farmers will gather or separate animals, often for nutritional reasons. The finishing animals have a high energy need to convert sugars into fat, so they get priority feed. Late-stage pregnancy and lactating mothers are the next-highest nutritional need group,” Colby said.

Paying attention to young animal management and nutrition can pay off in lifetime profitability of the animal. For example, calving at two years of age, not three, enhances lifetime profitability of heifers. To do so successfully, a separate feed management program is needed, Knight said.

Sometimes animals need to be separated for safety reasons. Large animals may out-compete smaller ones, or aggression can be a problem. Bulls are often managed separately for safety reasons, except during breeding times. New animals being brought into the herd require separation to prevent the introduction of illness.

“I often see a lot of problems with sexually transmitted diseases, respiratory diseases and parasites in herds that bring in a lot of outside animals,” Knight said. “If bringing in outside animals, keeping them separate for a time, 30 days in most cases, is a good idea. That way you can monitor the health of the animal. Outside animals were exposed to many different pathogens to which the current herd has no immunity.”

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Manure handling

“Regardless of the farm, if it’s a livestock farm, manure management needs to be incorporated” in the herd management plan, Colby said.

Best management practices (BMPs) for manure management are standards adopted to protect water, air and soil quality. Keeping manure from building up in any one area and avoiding riparian areas, are aspects of managing manure on pasture. Often, grazing multiple species of livestock, such as chicken following cattle, can help to remove insect pests and spread out manure, enhancing incorporation.

In a confined setting, manure must be removed, stored and incorporated onto fields. Balancing the fertility needs of the crops and applying manure in the right form, at the right time to avoid runoff concerns and prevent excessive nutrient buildup, requires precise management.

Future focused

“Well managed in my mind means proactively working to keep animals healthy, keep their stress low, make sure their nutrition is high and keeping input costs to raise them preventatively low,” Colby said. “By that, I mean keeping an eye on costs, but not automatically shaving all costs – some costs are actually investments that will save money in the long run.”

Successful herd management can keep the farm profitable. Maintaining optimal herd health in the most cost effective manner is the goal. All aspects of herd management require decision-making skills that keep both the farm and the animals thriving, now and in the future.

“Some livestock producers get caught up in trying to save money by reducing inputs and as a result their herd health and reproduction suffers greatly,” Knight said. “In order to become good managers of livestock, producers need to understand the physiology – health, reproduction and nutritional requirements – of the animal and how to economically raise their livestock and market them.”