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Idaho Enterprise

Extension Office Beef Class discusses birthing issues

As part of its public education and outreach mission, the Agricultural Extension Office hosted a Zoom presentation from University of Idaho’s Dr. Jim England on “Late Gestation Abortions” as well as a discussion with veterinarian Dr. Phillip Firth about new regulations regarding antimicrobials, primarily antibiotics.

The evening began with a dinner sponsored by IFA and provided by the iron Door Smokehouse.  The dinner included rolls, beef brisket, and dessert.

Dr. England, who has a long history working in the field and the academic environment, spoke to the assembled audience about the various causes of fetal mortality in cattle populations.  Both he and later Dr. Firth agreed that there had not been a large “abortion storm” (a large number of spontaneous early births or stillbirths due to a disease outbreak) in several decades.  However, England did assert that it was important for ranchers to report any unusual events before they become evidence of such an outbreak.  In his words, “We’d like people to report them after the first or second, not wait until the third when it’s often too late.”

England outlined the major infectious and non-infectious causes of late gestation abortions.  Brucellosis was mentioned as the most common cause, and received the bulk of specific discussion, followed by leptospira and listeria.

Both doctors agreed that brucellosis was something that they had seen often enough to always stay vigilant for.  The other infectious causes were less commonly seen, but had been seen in outbreaks here and there over the years.

Brucellosis is somewhat unique among cattle diseases in that it can be transmitted to humans in some cases (a potential referred to as “zoonosis”).  Known as “contagious abortion disease” in some areas, brucellosis can be spread rapidly and quickly infect large numbers of a cattle herd.  Its effects can include decreased milk production, weight loss, lameness, and infertility, as well as spontaneous abortions around the fifth or sixth month.  The disease can be spread by direct contact between animals, as well as shared water and food sources through which the infection can be transmitted.  Brucellosis is a common cause for concern among herds of bison in Yellowstone, as well as cattle herds across the western United States.  

Brucellosis is also of particular concern because it cannot be cured.  Contaminated livestock may remain largely asymptomatic but become capable of continually reinfecting others in the herd.  The disease, however, can be avoided through careful regulation of sanitation methods, accurate record keeping and animal identification, and isolation and testing during any periods of suspected infection. A program in place since 1954 has sought to eliminate brucellosis through early vaccination and selective culling, but it still represents an active threat to modern cattle herds.

Non-infectious causes of late term abortions include nitrate contamination, improperly timed injections of steroids or vaccines, pine needle poisoning, and lupine.  Nitrates generally come from fertilizer runoff becoming introduced into cattle’s water or food supplies.  Steroid injections can interfere with normal gestation and development, especially during specific developmental sequences of the growth process for fetuses.  Pine needles can be toxic to cattle in large doses, and they can become an abortion risk during winter when ranch pine trees are easy sources of green food during general scarcity.  As Dr. England suggested, pine needles are a range management issue for the most part, as they can be avoided through proper attention to the cattle’s environment.

The second part of the presentation involved a discussion with veterinarian Dr. Phillip Firth, of the Bear River Animal Hospital in Tremonton, about new regulations affecting antibiotic distribution.  A recent “guidance for industry (263)” recommendation from the FDA which suggests that ranchers should now acquire many antibiotics from licensed prescribing agencies, in conjunction with a “Veterinary Client-Patient Relationship.”  Dr. Firth explained that this doesn’t really change much in a practical sense, as most farms and ranches already have an existing relationship with a veterinarian, who would easily be able to authorize prescriptions.  The only difference is that local feed stores will no longer be able to sell antibiotics directly as point of sale transactions, unless they become a licensed ag pharmacy.

The new recommendations are partly an attempt to prevent unintended overuse of the antibiotics in question, which can lead to resistant strains of disease that can lead to major outbreak issues among populations.  The recommendations will also allow vets to more directly remind clients about the correct dosage quantities for various antibiotics.  Dosages which are incorrect can be ineffectual, or even counterproductive.  

Several audience members had questions about whether these new guidelines would mean that every animal in a herd would need to be seen by a vet.  Dr. Firth explained that Idaho’s VCPR was more flexible than that, and also indicated that the veterinarian primarily needed to be familiar with the rancher’s facilities and operation, rather than each individual animal.  Dr. Firth explained that vets would need to visit the ranch at least once a year, if not twice, in order to be familiar enough with the animals to prescribe antibiotics.  Dr. Firth reaffirmed his belief in the judicious use of antibiotics in maintaining herd health.  He encouraged anyone with questions to contact him whenever they arose.

Anyone with questions about either the new protocols for antibiotics or cattle abortions in general is encouraged to call either the Ag Extension Office at 1 (208) 766-2243 or the Bear River Animal Hospital at 1 (435) 257-7455.

In the upcoming months, the extension office will also be sponsoring an Estate planning class through Zoom, as well as a statewide range livestock symposium, broadcast from the College of Southern Idaho on January 11 and the Bonneville County Fairgrounds in Idaho Falls on January 12. 

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