Record keeping for a healthy herd

Dr. Michelle Arnold, University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory

July 8, 2024

Individual identification is critical for the success of a record keeping system. Keeping written farm records is like participating in a regular exercise program, easy to talk about but often hard to put into practice. Without good records, evaluating individual cow performance and the financial success of the beef cattle enterprise is a “guesstimation” (guess + estimation) at best. Even with handwritten records, taking that data and placing it in a system that allows for analysis is a step that is easily overlooked or forgotten. Computers have made this task easier, especially with the advent of programs designed for cow-calf producers. It is easy to see the value of knowing performance but what about health records? How important are records to maintaining a healthy herd?

Production records are invaluable to allow the beef producer not only to look at what is currently taking place within the cow herd but, more importantly, to look at how management changes impact the performance of the herd. Through analysis over the long-term, records can help to pinpoint weak areas in the management program and in identifying individual animals that fail to perform at profitable levels. With health data, it is possible to conduct a herd-specific risk assessment for a certain portion of the production cycle such as “calving season”. This “assessment” begins with a “risk analysis” which is identifying the “hazards” in your operation that contribute to sickness and death loss. For example, hazards during the calving season may be dystocia (difficult births), weak calves, scours, and environmental hazards such as predators in the area, and weather-related events (cold, wet weather). 

Each of these hazards has an associated “cost” which usually translates to “lost income” and “likelihood” which is the chance this event will happen. The next step is “risk management” which consists of looking at ways to mitigate or reduce the contribution of a hazard and what it costs to make this change. In our calving season example, one way to reduce the hazard caused by wet and cold weather is to switch to a fall calving season. 

The final step involves keeping good records to remember what was done and analyzing the records to see if this action plan was successful. Although it is possible to recognize certain problems and roughly estimate their cost to your operation without specific data, it is hard to evaluate progress and effectiveness without records.

To implement an effective record keeping system, information must be collected and stored in a standardized fashion to be able to analyze it later. One of the pitfalls to any computerized record keeping system is what is known as a “free text field” where the producer types in a piece of information in a provided space. For example, a calf may develop scours and the producer wants to record the calf ID, the disease, date it began, and any treatments administered. However, “scours” has multiple names and may be typed in as “diarrhea”, “loose stool”, or “enteric disease”. Later, when it is time to search the records for how many calves had scours, those calves with diarrhea but with disease names other than “scours” will be missed. Other problems such as misspelled words, too many pieces of information in the same field, and vague information make analysis of free text nearly impossible.

A useful system for evaluating health data will contain much of the same information used for analyzing performance. First and foremost, every cow and every calf must have individual identification (ID) that is readable, permanent and without duplication. Each calf ID must be matched with his or her dam ID. Ear tags are commonly used and ear tags with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology are growing in popularity because information such as weight can be automatically sent to the computer along with the electronic tag number with the use of a “reader”. 

Other useful information to record includes breed, sire, age of dam, calf’s birth date and sex, birth and weaning weights, weaning date, weight and/or body condition score of cows at weaning, and “contemporary group code” such as “Spring calves” or “Fall calves”. Health concerns such as disease, date of onset, treatments given, outcome (recovery/death/sold), and veterinary visit or expenses should be recorded in a standardized format. Record any abortions or stillbirths, any difficulties with labor and delivery, and all calf death losses. It is important that all animals born, whether dead or alive, are recorded and taken into consideration when the herd is being analyzed and record that information on the specific cow’s lifetime history. In addition to individual data, producers should record dates of vaccinations and dewormers administered. Vaccine data should include the name of the vaccine, lot and serial number from the bottle, date of expiration, date administered and route of administration (either intramuscular or subcutaneous).

Record keeping systems have evolved to mobile platforms so data can be entered and managed directly from a program on a cell phone. 

Keeping records is not the most exciting task but one of the most important management practices for your beef operation. The ability to review information to find and correct problems is a powerful tool including when there are health issues in the herd. A risk assessment is only possible with accurate identification of “hazards”, a plan to correct them, and a method to measure the success of the management change.

Southern Livestock

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