Farm Progress

Manage your ranch for total fitness

The best way to improve the health of your cattle is to improve the function and health of everything around them.

Walt Davis 1, Editor

February 1, 2017

5 Min Read
Getting cattle healthier is related to getting the land healthier, which is related to removing stress, which is related to every other thing.PrettyVectors/iStock/Thinkstock

It is my opinion that many of the problems plaguing ranching today had their origins in the shifts of attitude that caused the course of study known as animal husbandry to be re-named animal science.

In an effort to identify ways to increase production of animal agriculture, the scientific method was widely applied to study various practices and materials. While the scientific method is quite effective in comparing animal gain on feed A to gain on feed B, it is much less useful in determining the overall value to the operation of A or B, or whether either should be part of a management program. In too many cases the management emphasis is placed on maximizing short-term gains in one part of a complex situation without determining how or if such gain would contribute to overall ecological and financial health.

Emphasis is given to factors that can be easily quantified and measured: Heavier weaning weights, more pounds of grass, reduced backfat cover, fewer weeds.

A more logical and useful approach would be to focus instead on those factors such as healthy vegetation swards growing in healthy soil and breeding animals that are adapted to local conditions that promote sustainable and profitable production.

Though it is not widely admitted, stockmanship and husbandry are too often seen as outmoded or unnecessary since they don’t lend themselves to analysis by scientific methods and their benefits can theoretically be gained from technology.

Some things can be quantified easily enough, such as several types of psychological stress -- wean half of a calf crop on a medicated ration and the other half on a non-medicated ration in the typical weaning lot behind a high fence, away from their mothers. It will be simple to determine the effectiveness of the medication as measured by weight gain and prevalence of sickness in the two groups.

A more useful trial would be to wean half the crop on medicated feed in the dry lot and the other half on pasture across an electric fence from their mothers. Such a project, while extremely valuable, is unlikely to be undertaken by academia as it tests technology against stockmanship and will have difficulty attracting a funding sponsor.

It is much easier to treat the symptoms of the problem, which is stress-induced sickness, with medication than to figure out how to do away with the problem of fear and stress. We must have science to help us understand nature but it is a mistake to try to use science to dominate nature.

We would be far ahead if we replaced the culture of death (kill weeds, kill insects, kill disease organisms, kill predators) with a culture that promotes life so that we can harvest some of the energy surplus to the needs of the system for our own use. This is quite a statement to come from someone whose early experience in ranching would qualify him as a serial killer several times over. The change in attitude is the hard part; the actual mechanics of managing for the important things. Healthy soil, healthy plants and healthy animals are easier, less costly and more effective than what is conventional today. It is very interesting that the most promising cancer treatment brought forth in years kills nothing, but rather concentrates on strengthening the body's immune system.

The way to prevent disease in our livestock, in our plants, and in our selves is to strengthen the immunity response, which I call total fitness, by removing stress both chronic and acute. Most disease in plants, animals and humans occurs not because pathogens suddenly appear but because a weakened immune system allows the always-present pathogens to explode in numbers. An aside: total lack of exposure to pathogens or parasites is an unhealthy situation, (remember the specific pathogen-free hogs), as animals will quit producing the antibodies that target the pest organisms and become much more susceptible to damage by them.

Exposure to low levels of pathogens and parasites, levels that do not damage life processes, enhance animals' abilities to fight off dangerous organisms. Physicians are beginning to realize that exposure to microbes can enhance health in children. Farm and ranch kids have significantly fewer problems with asthma and other respiratory diseases. Getting sloppy puppy kisses all over your face and occasional chicken poop between bare toes are beneficial things to developing immune systems.

Modern animal agriculture is far too concerned with killing pests and pathogens and not nearly concerned enough about providing the conditions that promote good animal health. Animals fed the diet to which they are adapted, in an environment conducive to good health, and not subjected to physical or mental stress are remarkably resistant to disease. To get the full benefit of this management, the process will have to start with improving the health of the soil that grows the feed.

Animals fed improper diets, such as large amounts of grain to ruminants or no animal protein to hogs and poultry, and kept in un-hygienic conditions under stress will require the full range of vaccines and antibiotics just to survive. I am not going on a rant about confined animal feeding operations except to say they are not where I want to invest my money. The profit margins are too thin and the risk factors are too high to appeal to me. As I said, I abandoned that way of doing business many years ago on my own ranch.


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