Times are tough in the cattle industry, but there are opportunities for beef cattle veterinarians to offer more services to their cow-calf clients to help both sides succeed.

The National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) of USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service has just released Beef 2007–2008 Part I: Reference of Beef Cow-calf Management Practices in the United States, 2007–08. The study was conducted in 24 states with the largest beef cow populations and provides participants, stakeholders, and the industry as a whole with valuable information representing 79.6% of U.S. cow-calf operations and 87.8% of U.S. beef cows. This report contains information collected from 2,872 cow-calf operations.

Marketing practices

Producers were asked to report whether they used specific production practices to target marketing channels for calves. Overall, the highest percentage of operations used specific management practices to target conventional markets followed by natural market channels. A higher percentage of operations with 200 or more beef cows utilized specific production practices to target a breed-influenced program compared with operations in the other size categories. Only 5.2% of operations with 1 to 49 beef cows used age-and-source verification markets, while 29.0% of operations with 200 or more beef cows did so. Similar percentages of operations with 50 to 99 and 100 to 199 cows used specific management practices to target age-and-source verification markets (11.7% and 14.9%, respectively).

“I think that veterinarians are very well-placed to be able to be a resource to the producers wanting to access these marketing channels,” says Dave Dargatz, DVM, PhD, USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, Veterinary Services, Fort Collins, Colo. “They can carry information to the producers on the requirements on options for the programs and can help with the implementation of the programs that the producers choose.”

Recordkeeping systems

The majority of operations (83.3%) kept some form of records, and over 90% of operations with 100 or more cows kept records. Across herd sizes, over three-fourths of operations kept hand-written records. The percentage of operations that kept records on a computer located on the operation ranged from 13.3% of operations with 1 to 49 beef cows to 37.4% of operations with 200 or more. A higher percentage of operations with 200 or more beef cows kept records on a computer located off the operation than operations in any other size category.

The thing about hand-written records is that they can be cumbersome to manipulate to answer questions. “Capturing information in a computer often times allows more in the way of analysis which can facilitate better decision making,” Dargatz notes. “The veterinarian can help the producer in a number of ways with recordkeeping.  At the lowest level they can encourage producers to write down information on key measurements that contribute to achieving the goals of the producer. And they could even help identify ways to record the information or even provide standardized forms for recording the information. 

At the other end of the spectrum, Dargatz says, the veterinarian can offer services that include data management and follow up analysis and consultation based on the data. “The key seems to be showing the producer the value of the data to be collected so as to justify the expenditure of time and effort to get it written down in the first place. It is important to recognize that this can be an incremental process where showing the value of a little data may facilitate the collection of even more data in the future.”

Information sources

Producers were asked about the sources they used for general information and for breeding and genetics information. More operations considered veterinarians a very important source for both general information and breeding and genetics information (53.1% and 45.2%, respectively) than any other information source.

There is a trend for more small producers to say the veterinarian is not as important than for large producers, but Dargatz says this may just be a reflection of producers with smaller operations having less contact with veterinarians through emergency or routine service provision. It may be that these producers are underserved in their local area or they may feel their information needs are being met adequately through other avenues. “For the 85% of producers who indicate veterinarians are an important source of information, I think veterinarians have a great opportunity and a willing audience to convey messages about animal health and well-being and management on the cow-calf operation,” he says.

National Animal Identification System (NAIS)

NAIS is a voluntary animal identification system that facilitates the collection of a limited amount of information about livestock operations (standardized contact information; location identification; species involved, but, importantly, no animal inventories; etc.). This information is stored in state and federal databases for use during animal disease events in order to contact producers in the event of a disease outbreak. NAIS is designed to facilitate accurate tracing information during disease outbreaks so that sick or exposed animals can be quickly located to help contain the disease. A unique premises ID is assigned by each State’s Department of Agriculture to all operations using NAIS standards (see sidebar).

In the NAHMS study, the smallest herd size (fewer than 50 beef cows) had the lowest percentage of operations with a unique NAIS premises ID (11.7%) compared with operations with 50 or more beef cows. The percentages of operations with a unique NAIS premises ID were similar for all herd sizes with 50 or more cows (>25%).

According to Dave Morris, DVM, PhD, of the USDA’s NAIS program, as of Jan. 5, 2009, there are over 250,000 cattle premises identified. The NAIS Business Plan to Advance Animal Disease Traceability, published Sept. 24, 2008, describes the implementation of seven specific strategies in advancing animal disease tracing capability. “For the cattle industries, the current priority is for officially identifying as many animals in the breeding herd as possible, among other critical control points for animal disease control,” Morris explains.

Beef Quality Assurance

Overall, more than one-half of operations (51.3%) had heard of the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program. A higher percentage of operations with 200 or more beef cows had heard of the BQA program compared with operations with fewer than 200 beef cows. A lower percentage of operations with 1 to 49 beef cows had heard of the BQA program compared with the other herd sizes.

Of the 51.3% of operations that had heard of the BQA program, approximately one in five (22.2%) had attended a BQA meeting or training session. A lower percentage of operations with 1 to 49 cows had attended a BQA meeting or training session compared with operations with 100 or more beef cows.

Despite efforts, some of the smaller producers are not getting the BQA message or don’t remember getting the message. “Some of these people are not actively engaged in the beef industry, i.e. they have other jobs and the cows are either a secondary source of income or they don’t even consider income as a reason for having the cows and perhaps they have cows as a lifestyle rather than as a production unit,” Dargatz explains. “BQA is such a key issue for the industry that veterinarians should help to spread the word and serve as role models in promoting BQA among all operations that have beef cows.” 

The variation in familiarity with the BQA program across different regions of the U.S. seems to relate to herd size within those regions, adds Dee Griffin, DVM, MS, Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center, Clay Center, Neb. “Of the 30+ million cows in cow-calf herds in the U.S. the average size herd is less than the first herd size (1–49) NAHMS evaluated and these are herds that would provide less than $5,000 to the family income. It would seem doubtful they would spend much time or effort being involved in industry issues.” 

Likewise, beef cattle veterinarians who serve the majority of these small herds will most likely be mixed practitioners. And while they may be very high-quality veterinarians, the nature of their practices would dilute the time available to focus on beef industry educational efforts and issues, Griffin says. “For my state, Nebraska, I would hope the joint efforts and partnership between the veterinary associations and cattlemen groups in Nebraska would improve in the future the results of the NAHMS inquires.”

The NAHMS results point to deficits and tremendous educational opportunities available for veterinarians and cattle producer groups. “We all have an important role in helping producers deliver a high quality safe food to consumers,” Griffin states. “The USDA Food Safety Inspection Service’s data demonstrates the systems for food safety in the U.S. work. There are opportunities to improve, and the NAHMS report documents just how far our producers’ educational efforts have to go. I hope we are up to the challenge.”

The veterinarian is seen as a key information source by producers on a variety of topics, Dargatz says. “He or she is in an important position, having the opportunity to discuss the issue with the producer and with first-hand knowledge of the limitations on the individual operations, to help the producer see the value in devoting the efforts to implement the BQA processes.” 

Veterinarians and NAIS

Because NAIS is a traceability system designed to control and/or mitigate animal disease, veterinarians are especially suited for communicating the importance of official animal identification in supporting the surveillance and response efforts for animal disease monitoring. Standardized location identification; official, unique animal identification, and/or group/lot identification; and written records are all elements of a sound, animal disease biosecurity program. “Promoting the importance of at least knowing where animals are is the foundation of any animal disease traceability system,” says Dave Morris, DVM, PhD, of the USDA NAIS program. Owners can be notified when they may be at risk for a specific disease potentially impacting their operation.

It is also important to convey that having animals officially identified and associated with a specific location actually reduces liability rather than increases it. What that means, explains Morris, is that producers now have the ability to document and report, if so chosen, that specific animals as of such a date are no longer under their control.” 

 USDA:APHIS:VS has developed NAIS in the Field: A Veterinarian’s Tool Kit to better explain the role that accredited veterinarians have in assisting with implementation of NAIS standards.

Premises ID for practices

In developing an animal disease traceability plan, it is important to identify those locations that may have an increased risk for disease transfer. “Whether it is a risk of commingling, or the assumption that more often than not, sick animals are housed at veterinary practices rather than non-clinically diseased animals, veterinary practices were identified as premises with a higher than normal risk of disease transfer,” Morris says. “Having a standardized location identifier for veterinary practices that house animals is similar to any operation that houses or maintains livestock, no matter the length of time.”

The opportunity to provide USDA official, NAIS-approved animal identification tags/devices as a profit center for the practice exists. However, any veterinary practice that maintains an inventory of official NAIS-approved tags/devices, similar to the current official metal tag system, must be identified. APHIS:VS has chosen the NAIS premises identification number as the standard for this data element. 

“The responsibility to associate the animal identification number with a premises identification number is an important function of the accredited veterinarian when providing official disease program work,” Morris adds. “In providing official NAIS-approved tags/devices to producers as well, this association provides an initial ‘bookend’ for a traceability system, serving to document a likely birth premises or point of first tagging.”

To view the full Beef 2007–2008 Part I: Reference of Beef Cow-calf Management Practices in the United States, 2007–08, click here.