A livestock producers’ field day taught best practices for livestock health and ways to minimize antibiotic use as well as pasture and weed management. The field day called “Farm Case Studies, Securing Farms for the Future: Production, Processing and Marketing” was held at Windmist in Jamestown, RI as part of a 3-year Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) “Grass-fed All Year Long” grant awarded to UConn, UMass and URI.
Sheep and parasites
Katherine Petersson of URI (Fisheries, Animal & Veterinary Science Department) reported that about 30 percent of animals have about 80 percent of gastrointestinal (GIN) parasites. She recommended using the FAMACHA© anemia scoring system to identify animals in the herd that are susceptible to the barber pole worm (H. contortus), the most pathogenic of the GIN. To prolong the efficacy of your dewormer, Petersson recommended that producers only treat those animals most affected by GIN, rather than treating a whole herd. Mixed species grazing and pasture rotation improves animal health and reduces parasite exposure.
Feeds high in condensed tannins (CT) have been shown to effectively control parasites. Research is underway examining the anti-parasitic effect of birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus L.), a CT containing legume hardy in the Northeast.
Petersson recommended producers identify and minimize breeding animals particularly susceptible to GIN.
Minimizing antibiotic use
Dennis Thibeault, DVM of Green Valley Vet Services, said consumer demand for organic and sustainable local foods is increasing. He urged meat producers to reduce their widespread use of antibiotics to reduce risks of antibiotic-resistant pathogens in livestock and humans. Dr. Thibeault urged producers to strive for maximum livestock health to reduce disease pressure and need for treatment. It costs far less to keep animals healthy than to treat a sick animal. Ensure animals have comfortable (sun/shade, cooling) conditions year-round and nutritious food in front of them all the time.
Buy only healthy animals from reputable breeders. Dr. Thibeault urged producers to select the right breed for their site and conditions. Do not expect a breed meant for feedlots with corn feed to thrive on pasture.
Michael Keilty, Tristate (CT-MA-RI) Grass-fed Meats Educational Program Coordinator, noted that grass-fed meat breeders seek animals with shorter legs that are ready for market sooner. “We want animals close to the ground. There’s no money in bones,” he said.
Seek a breeder who will precondition animals before transport. Preconditioning can reduce weight loss and protect animal health with these steps:
• Disease immunization before and at weaning as well as before transportation
• Gradual transition (three to four weeks) to future feed composition as well as feed and water delivery systems (i.e. troughs)
• Stress reducing management
Good breeders will:
• Wean animals at least three weeks before transportation
• Feed with probiotics, to stabilize gut during weaning
• Feed mineral and vitamin supplements for optimal health
• Have a practice round up a week before transportation day
• Leave a chute/handling facility open for animals to explore
• Feed and water animals before transportation
• Minimize crowding, transportation and handling time
• Ensure vehicles avoid manure and ammonia buildup
• Follow biosecurity practices
• Identify, isolate and treat sick animals promptly
Producers need a good relationship with their vet including at least one farm visit per year. If the vet is comfortable with the producer’s practices and understanding of livestock health, the vet may be able to confirm diagnoses and prescribe some treatments over the phone, saving the producer money.
Treatment administration must following label recommendations (dose, frequency and delivery method). Thibeault stressed the importance of good record keeping on animal health as well as administration and timing of treatments.
When animals do need antibiotics or other medicines, it is important to follow the required waiting periods after treatment.
Pasture management practices
Eric Boettger, USDA NRCS Resource Conservationist, described the benefits of an extensive Cornell Soil Health Test which can guide long-term farm management practices. Physical property results include ability of soil structure to remain intact during rain, water storage capacity and compaction at and below soil surface (0-6” and 6-18”). Biological property results measure amount of organic matter, active carbon available to feed microbial processes, plant available nitrogen levels and potential root health (absence of root harming pathogens). Chemical property results include pH, plant nutrient and toxin levels (Phosphorus, Potassium and minor elements).
A variety of Best Management Practices (BMPs) can help farmers and producers manage suboptimal conditions in the short and long term. NRCS cost sharing programs may also be available to support resource conservation efforts. Recommendations resulting from the soil health test might include
• Liming fields to adjust pH
• Adding compost and growing cover crops to increase organic matter
• Growing tillage radishes to break up compacted soils
• Using rotational grazing for improved pasture health
• Delaying spring grazing in wet areas to minimize compaction
The Cornell Soil Health Test takes about six weeks to process and costs start at $85 per sample. Boettger recommended repeating the test every three years to verify that new practices are effective.
Carl Sawyer, URI Crops Researcher, spoke on pasture weeds and their effects on livestock. While animals instinctively know to avoid potentially toxic plants, they may mistakenly eat some toxic plants in hay or overgrazed pastures. Producers should be aware of symptoms caused by toxic plants.
Milkweeds are toxic to cattle, goats, deer and other grazers. Sawyer recommend against haying fields with high populations of milkweed and horsenettle. Smooth bedstraw, horsenettle and milkweed are the three weeds that Sawyer gets the most calls about. Only horsenettle and milkweed have toxicity issues. Smooth bedstraw is a weed problem.
Poultry are not affected by the same plant toxins as other livestock. Poultry on bare or nearly bare fields will control many young weeds (except Jimson Weed).
At a minimum, producers should mow weedy fields before problem weeds go to seed.