Beef protocols: Ensuring safety and welfare

by Tamara Scully

The New York Beef Producers’ Association Annual Winter Conference featured an array of workshops covering all aspects of beef farming. One of the three conference tracks featured Cornell PRO-DAIRY and other dairy farming experts leading workshops on raising crossbred dairy/beef calves for the emerging dairy beef market.

Other tracks offered practical advice on fencing, grazing, safe animal handling and Johnes disease, or covered food safety, marketing, food security and animal welfare concerns.

The annual event serves as the meeting location for Simmental, Hereford and Angus producers.

Dr. Shannon Carpenter, DVM, was presented with the NYBPA Service Award for the Beef Quality Assurance Training as well as the 4-H youth programming she has regularly offered to the organization’s members. Carpenter also led a workshop covering the need for written farm protocols.

Establishing protocols

“The dairy producers have stepped up to the plate,” with written farm protocols, Carpenter told meeting participants. Beef producers, however, have not yet adopted the development of farm protocols as a standard operation practice.

The overwhelming response she has received when trying to convince beef producers to do so has been an attitude of “I know what I’m doing. I’m the only one taking care of the animals,” she said. But that all changes when something happens to the primary farmer. She’s seen firsthand – on at least two of her client farms – the chaos that has ensued when the primary farmer has fallen ill. “Nobody knew what they were doing in the barn,” she said.

Having written protocols outlining everything from the daily schedule complete with feeding, moving, bedding and other clear instructions, to emergency disaster plans means avoiding both human and animal welfare and safety concerns, Carpenter emphasized. Protocols hold employees accountable not only when you are unavailable but at all times, and ensure that the standards of care you think your animals are getting, and the safety procedures you think your farm is employing, are actually happening.

“There have to be some consequences” if procedures aren’t followed, she said, and having written protocols make it clear exactly what those procedures are and who is responsible for doing the job.

Types of protocols

Animal handling – for human and cow safety and animal well-being – is an obvious place to begin. Approaching the cattle without startling them or encroaching on their flight zone or blind spot, moving them versus turning them and properly observing the animals for potential health problems are all areas of concern. Protocols need to be written down and accessible to family, employees or friends and neighbors who may be called upon to help out in times of stress.

Protocols should also address standard procedures for cleaning and disinfecting equipment after use, whether that use is daily or occasional. One example where cleanliness is often overlooked is the shoot, which often is not disinfected as it needs to be.

Normal observation of the herd is another procedure that requires a written protocol. Signs such as swelling, bruising, limping, dropping ears, increased respiration, vaginal discharge or other concerns need to be included, along with the exact actions to take in each situation.

“When they look at your protocol, they know what you want them to observe,” she stated. Things that may be second nature to you are not necessarily so to others. Proper protocol for moving downed animals – don’t drag them, which is painful to them; how to tell if they can get up; or if euthanasia protocols need to be followed – are not always obvious to others.

Where, when and how to separate animals showing signs of illness or injury, when to further exam them, when to call the veterinarian and who makes these decisions are included in the protocols. Pain control, cull protocols and treatment protocols are to be “dependent upon recovery potential,” she emphasized.

A euthanasia protocol is “based on the pain and distress of the animal, the likelihood of recovery, the ability of the animal to get feed and water. Each disease has its own protocols based on individual farm and veterinarian recommendations,” Carpenter said. “This is something that your vet should assist you with writing.”

A maternity protocol not only includes written procedures for when to watch the animal and when to move it, how to observe for progress and when to call the veterinarian, and how to take care of the mother and calf after birthing; it also includes having a supply inventory of needed items and procedures for keeping these items stocked and accessible.

Carpenter advised that “beef calves have a much stronger instinct to get up and nurse” than do dairy calves, and producers need to be aware of the difference.

She reminded producers that a herd is not a closed herd if animals are taken to shows. A closed herd has no animals that leave or enter the farm, and vaccination needs will differ between open and closed herds. The timing of vaccinations can depend on when the cattle are worked, spring or autumn, as well as disease prevalence in your region.

“There is no standard vaccination protocol for every farm. You really need to have it tailored to what works on your farm,” Carpenter stated. “If you don’t have signs of the disease on your farm, you may not need to use it.”

However, all producers need to vaccinate routinely for rabies and tetanus, without exception.

Basic needs and beyond

Often overlooked but necessary protocols cover the animals’ basic needs and include routine summer and winter care. These protocols serve as guidelines for daily chores and allow anyone who needs to step into your shoes to do so and provide the same standard care.

The basic daily care protocols include contact numbers for all of the professionals – veterinarian, feed dealer, nutritionist, equipment mechanics and others – that are a part of your farm’s team.

Emergency contact numbers, including 911, should be readily visible. Evacuation plans, as well as emergency shut-off locations and backup sources of power or heat, all need to be identified and labeled, with operating procedures clearly outlined for their use.

Other protocols that can be included are CAFO plans, watershed protection plans, crop management plans or environmental management plans. An absolute must is a written and accessible employee handbook where job descriptions and expectations are clearly stated.

Lastly, all protocols require annual updating at a minimum.

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