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Cattle Diseases: Signs and Prevention

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According to the USDA, 2.1 million farms in the United States raise beef cattle and calves. There are currently 89.8 million beef cattle and calves in the United States. The United States remains the world’s number one supplier of beef to the world. The abundant pasturelands in the middle of the nation, combined with the ease of raising small herds of beef cattle under 49 head on a family farm make raising cattle possible for both huge farming corporations and small family farms in every state of the nation.

Common Cattle Diseases

Cattle suffer from a variety of diseases. Diseases are more common among herds kept in tight quarters, such as on feedlots, or large herds kept on too few acres. Diseases are also more common among stressed animals, such as calves weaned and shipped immediately to new locations. Keeping new animals quarantined until you’re sure they aren’t suffering from disease is a simple herd management practice that can keep the majority of your livestock healthy by reducing the number of potentially transmitted diseases.

Beef cattle diseases fall into specific categories:

  • Respiratory: These airborne ailments are caused by microorganisms spread by coughing, sneezing, eye discharge and mucous discharge.
  • Enteric: Enteric diseases develop in the intestinal tract. They are often caused by parasites ingested during feeding.
  • Skin and hooves: Beef cattle can develop diseases in their hooves and on their skin.
  • Neurological: Neurological diseases are caused by bacteria and viruses transmitted through insect bites. These can cause cattle to stumble or have difficulty walking.

Beef cattle, like their dairy cattle counterparts, can also suffer from udder infections and reproductive diseases. And like any mammal, cattle are susceptible to rabies, anthrax and other serious diseases.

The University of Arkansas provides a free vaccination schedule for livestock.

Many diseases can be prevented through good herd management, proper nutrition and vaccinations. Cattle should receive specific vaccinations such as vaccinations for anthrax, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) and many other diseases. The University of Arkansas provides a free vaccination schedule for livestock that includes vaccinations for adults, breeding females and calves.

Several Common Cattle Diseases

Although it’s not possible to list every potential disease among beef cattle, there are certain diseases that livestock owners see more often than others. These include:

  • Bloat: Bloat is a herd management issue related to cattle grazing on rich pasture that ferments rapidly in their stomachs. Fermentation creates gas, and too much gas causes pain and stomach bloating that puts pressure on internal organs. If the pressure isn’t relieved, your cattle can die. Watch the quantity of alfalfa your cattle are eating and other legumes, especially in the spring as they transition from hay and poorer grass to newly growing pastures.
  • Grass tetany: Grass tetany is caused by a severe magnesium deficiency. Cattle stagger and seem to have neurological problems. It’s often caused by springtime pastures rich in nitrogen and deficient in magnesium, or poor forage during winter months. Consult a veterinarian immediately if you suspect this problem. Cows treated quickly can recover, but if left untreated they may not.
  • Foot rot: A lame cow with discharge from the hoof may be suffering from foot rot. It’s caused by a common soil-borne bacteria such as streptococci, staphylococci, corynebacterium and various fungi. These microorganisms love moist, warm environments, such as the interior of the hoof. Treatments from your veterinarian are available to cure foot rot, but it’s easier to manage wet pastures to prevent your livestock from standing in areas potentially contaminated with foot rot microorganisms.
  • IBR (infectious bovine rhinotracheitis): IBR is also called “red nose disease” because a cow or calf’s nose becomes red and raw. The animal rubs their nose to get rid of an annoying and constant mucous discharge. Animals may experience loss of appetite and a fever, too. It’s very contagious, so separate your animal from the herd and call a veterinarian.
  • BVD (bovine viral diarrhea): Animals infected with BVD have scours, or constant diarrhea, nasal discharge and fever. This is a serious disease that can cause intestinal hemorrhaging, especially in young or weak animals.
  • Bovine respiratory disease complex:  This disease is also called “shipping fever” and strikes animals after being shipped. It’s a type of pneumonia that cattle, horses and other livestock get after being stressed. It’s not caused by one particular virus or bacteria but brought on by many factors coming together and an animal under extreme stress. BRDC causes respiratory distress, runny nose, fever and loss of appetite. If your cattle have just been shipped in, quarantine them for several days to watch for symptoms of BRDC to prevent it from spreading.

Signs of Sick Cattle

It’s important to check your herd daily for signs of sick cattle. Get your cattle into the habit of feeding from a round bale feeder or a livestock trough daily at a set time so they will line up on their own for inspection. Look for signs of sick cattle such as:

  • Eye problems: Cattle with eye problems may keep one eye shut and rub their face against fence posts, trees or rocks. The eye may appear cloudy when the cow opens it, and they may have a running, weeping discharge from one or both eyes. They may also seek shade under a tree and remain away from bright sunlight. Eye discharge may be a sign of an injury to the eye, or more commonly conjunctivitis or pink eye. This highly contagious bacterial disease among beef cattle can result in scarring of the cornea and even blindness if not caught and treated early.
  • Hoof problems: Cattle with hoof ailments will limp or favor one hoof over another. The hoof may appear hot, swollen or cracked. If you can get near enough to handle your animal, or you can get your cow into a chute for inspection, you may be able to examine the hooves. Pus or any type of discharge must be treated immediately.
  • Skin lesions:  It’s normal for cows to have an occasional patch of skin showing. It’s the same thing among beef cattle as a scraped knee is among people. But lesions across the back or circular patterns can indicate ringworm, rain rot or another fungal infection that can make your livestock miserable.
  • Respiratory problems: Respiratory issues in beef cattle are more common after transportation or purchasing cattle from auction, when numerous cattle from different farms may be penned together during the auction. It’s during these times of stress that cattle may be vulnerable to respiratory infections. Coughing, wheezing, mucous discharge and similar signs can all point to respiratory problems. Common respiratory infections include viral infections.
  • Neurological problems: Cattle that stagger should be immediately investigated. These animals may be suffering from a severe neurological problem. Some cattle lay down and are unable to get up. Neurological problems may be caused by microorganisms or dietary deficiencies brought about by grazing on lush, new pasture that’s deficient in minerals. Poisonous plants may also be to blame, or grazing on land that has a high proportion of arsenic or lead in the soil. Downed cows should be evaluated by a veterinarian for diagnosis and treatment.

Other signs of a sick cow include weight loss. Unexplained weight loss may be due to a heavy parasite load or dietary deficiencies.

A good livestock owner gets to know their cattle and can immediately spot changes in behavior or appearance. Cattle are usually consistent in their behavior, and any noticeable change may be due to sickness, stress or something in the environment. Investigating and resolving the problem quickly can keep your herd healthy for a long time to come.

Cattle Disease Prevention

You’ve heard the old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Nothing could be truer when it comes to raising beef cattle. Preventing diseases is a lot less expensive than treating them, and you’ll be able to raise your cattle to market weight faster and easier if you take a few steps to keep your cattle healthy.

Keeping your livestock’s disease resistance high should be first on your list of health measures. This includes providing your beef cattle with good nutrition and clean water. Because cattle rely heavily on the pastures in which they’re housed for both food and shelter, keeping an eye on the quality and quantity of grass in pastures is essential to keeping cattle healthy.

It’s not enough to manage pasture grass. You’ve also got to keep an eye out for debris. It’s an unfortunate fact of country life that many people don’t think twice about tossing beer bottles, soda cans and fast food wrappers out their car windows. These objects can blow into an open field and end up in the mouths of curious cattle.

Foreign objects lodged in the intestinal tract can be deadly, and an unwary cow can cut a fetlock or hoof on debris tossed over a pasture fence. Walking your fence line daily or weekly enables you not only to check its security but avoid catastrophe from unthinking litter bugs.

Your cattle should be vaccinated against major diseases, including anthrax and many others. You can obtain a list of recommended vaccinations from your veterinarian or your local Cooperative Extension Office, which should have information for raising healthy beef cattle in your state and county. This list will include specific localized illnesses your herd should be vaccinated against.

Keep accurate and timely records of your vaccination schedule, worming schedule and any health issues among your herd. Many farmers prefer computerized record-keeping systems that enable them to track and monitor herd health, weight and sales prices. Such programs provide invaluable data when you’re looking to expand or change your herd composition.

In addition to vaccinations, routine worming for common parasites is another great practice to keep herds healthy. Parasite prevention and treatment ensures your cattle stay healthy and put on adequate weight.


The right cattle handling equipment can make a huge difference in helping you maintain the health and well-being of your herd by making regular veterinary care hassle-free.

Pasture Maintenance for Healthy Cattle

Keep a clean pasture

Cattle spend much of their lives grazing and live outside almost every day of the year. Most farmers graze their herds on large open pastures. Just like you keep your home clean and the air inside of it healthy, so too must you keep your cattle’s pasture healthy and free from problems that can lead to diseases.

  • Regular planting with nutritious pasture grass keeps the grazing composition right for beef cattle. A mix of fescue, orchard grass, rye, white clover and other forage grasses provides the right nutritional composition to raise healthy cattle.
  • Learn how to identify the most common plants poisonous to beef cattle. Develop a program to eradicate common pasture weeds and poisonous plants.
  • Consider pasture rotation if you have enough room. Moving your herd from one pasture to another to let a pasture rest and grow for several weeks or months is ideal.
  • Pick up or disk manure to prevent parasites from re-infecting herds.
  • Keep hay bales contained to round bale feeders so they don’t rot in the pasture from rains or make a mess.
  • Fix any low-lying, swampy areas that are prone to flooding and mud. If your pasture is wet throughout, consider moving cattle to dry land for a few days so they’re not standing in mud.
  • Check areas around ponds or water troughs for excess mud, too. Make sure water troughs aren’t surrounded by a “mud moat” that forces cattle to stand in bacteria-rich mud, which can infect and weaken hooves.
  • Provide mineral blocks, especially to developing calves, or mineral and protein blocks to supplement the pasture during winter months.
  • Offer plenty of clean water to cattle so they can drink as much as they want to.
  • If you purchase hay for winter feeding, make sure you buy the best quality you can. Keep it dry and covered until ready to use. Discard moldy or wet hay.

Herd Management

Cattle Herd Management Practices image

In addition to these best practices for beef cattle health, certain herd management practices can also prevent diseases from spreading.

  • Purchase new cattle or calves from reputable auction houses or local farms.
  • Purchase only healthy-looking animals, and ask for a health history, such as a vaccination or worming history, if available.
  • Transport livestock the shortest distance possible. Transportation stresses animals.
  • Isolate newcomers to the herd for two weeks until you’re sure they aren’t sick.
  • Isolate any sick animals for treatment and to prevent illnesses from spreading.
  • Don’t breed sick or weakened animals.
  • Call a veterinarian promptly if your animals are injured, down in the field, or seriously ill. Prompt attention can prevent big problems later.

Beef cattle are among the easiest livestock to raise, but they aren’t without problems. By keeping ahead of their health needs and providing adequate nutrition and dry pasture on which to live and graze, your beef cattle can stay healthy, happy and productive for many seasons to come.

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