When you think about any successful business you know, what is the key to their success? Planning. The same can be said for farming. No matter what herd size you have, having a plan for your farm is essential.

While there are many areas that need planning on a farm, from grass management to slurry management, herd health planning for animal health and performance is crucial to the success of a profitable farm.

Keeping your animals in tiptop condition can be complex, from vaccinating your herd to maintaining a hygienic and suitable environment. Most of you will already have a health plan in place to comply with Bord Bia requirements. Unfortunately, for many farms, these herd health plans are seen only as a way of ensuring compliance and not a meaningful document that underpins the animal health of the farm.

A herd health plan should be organised between the farmer and their veterinary practitioner, where disease risks are highlighted and discussed, and a plan is put in place to prevent and treat as the need arises and used by the farmer throughout the year. It should be a detailed document that allows the farmer to manage their herd in as efficient a manner as possible, encompassing many aspects of management.

It allows farmers to slash medication costs and make savings through healthy livestock, simply by mapping out a plan to prevent, reduce and react to any infectious on-farm threat. While costs of preventative measures may rise, the overall saving comes in the form of healthier livestock, far less time wasted minding sick stock and greater daily liveweight gain, milk production and enhanced key performance indicators.

There are different ways to go about setting up a herd health plan, but any such plan should follow the basic principles of disease control and veterinary healthcare, which are risk assessment and management, standard operating procedures, surveillance and agreed action plans.

Plan/set farm goals

Know where you are starting from and set targets to achieve goals you want to reach. Break the targets up into small pieces so they are less overwhelming. It is all about assessing risk regarding diseases and situations and deciding what the priorities are, while being aware this may change. A good herd plan is constantly evolving.

Implement plans

Step by step, put standardised procedures in place for various health activities that need to be carried out. Putting the procedures into practice will mean improvement in overall health status, fewer health problems and improved performance. These procedures provide a structure and ensure that each activity is carried out to the same standard by all staff members.

Monitor performance

Recording and monitoring is a vital part of health planning. If you do not know what is happening on-farm and cannot measure it, then you cannot plan. Recordkeeping should be designed so that the process is easy and the results are practical. A major incentive to maintaining good records is to make them purposeful and use them to help make decisions.

Make it user friendly and close at hand to where the observations are made. The note section on your mobile phone or a pocket notebook can be made use of and readily transferred later.

Review progress

See how far you have come in the year and identify further areas for improvement. It boosts morale among staff to see improvements and acts as a means of motivating people to achieve better results the following year. The plan will only work if continually renewed and developed and actions assessed for ongoing maintenance or improvements.

The plan can be as simple as a spreadsheet divided up into months/seasons adding in various tasks that need to be completed during these time frames for each group of animals, or it can be more elaborate, like those available on the various farm software packages. The key is to sit down with your veterinary practitioner and do it.

Having it as straightforward as possible will make you more inclined to stick to it. Bord Bia has a herd health plan template on its website.

It is difficult to fit everything on one sheet and it may work better to split the year into sections – for example, calves and calving, breeding season, grazing period, dry period, etc. Within each of these time frames, specify in more detail the tasks that should be done on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

Taking calves as an example, begin by dividing tasks on a daily/weekly/monthly/annual basis. Getting good-quality colostrum into all calves as soon as possible after birth is worth the effort and will be greatly rewarding in terms of improved calf health.

White board with magnetic tape showing the herd health plan.

The procedure for this should be printed off, laminated and easily visible, so that all staff know it. Even for farms that do not have extra staff, if you are ever missing due to unforeseen circumstances, this will make the job easier for whoever is filling in.

Observing calves and recording any clinical conditions or abnormalities not only identifies any current problem that may be developing, but also provides essential information for establishing risks and creating future action plans, for example with coughing in young calves, these may immediately benefit from implementation of a vaccination plan and long-term the ventilation of the shed should be examined.

Calves that have recurring incidences of pneumonia should not be kept as replacement heifers, as even one case of pneumonia in a heifer calf can lead to a 6% reduction in their first lactation. Your vet is the best person to discuss disease prevention and vaccination plans specific to and achievable for your farm.

Monitoring growth rates may seem like a tedious job, but it is worth it in the long run. Studies have shown a positive correlation between dairy heifer growth rates in the first two months of life and milk yield. There are several different targets to aim for to achieve the ideal age of first calving of 24 months.

Some that are easy to remember include 80kg by eight weeks or double the birth weight at weaning (to achieve this there needs to be an average growth rate of 0.8kg/day), 65% of their adult body weight at bulling and 90% of adult body weight when they first calve.

Disease prevention and continually striving to improve animal health and welfare is one of the major challenges farmers face in maintaining sustainable profitable businesses

In an ideal world, growth rates would be monitored every two weeks, but even picking certain stages will give a good indication of performance – for example, at birth, at weaning, at six months and before breeding.

These animals are the future of your herd and if we do not measure, we can’t monitor their performance or intervene if required. Growth setbacks can occur at certain stages, such as de-horning or weaning, so it is important to manage these events well and keep stress to a minimum.

There are many other benefits to herd health planning. It ensures better time management, ensures good attention to detail in all aspects of farm management and helps reduce stress during busy periods. It can also provide a mechanism for improving biosecurity procedures.

Disease prevention and continually striving to improve animal health and welfare is one of the major challenges farmers face in maintaining sustainable profitable businesses. But seeing your herd thrive, whether through increased milk production, better health in general or successfully rearing healthy youngstock, is one of the most satisfying and rewarding experiences for farmers.