Essential health checks for growing and finishing dairy cattle

Following a health plan, agreed with your vet, will help to prevent disease from developing. Learn about the essential health checks for growing and finishing dairy cattle. 

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Essential health checks during growing and finishing

Agree a health plan with your vet

It is recommended you have a discussion with your vet and create a written health plan to prevent disease issues developing.

The plan should be discussed and agreed for all routine procedures and treatments for the herd.

Refer to the health plan regularly and keep it updated.

Check abattoir data for signs of disease

Feedback from the abattoirs you use can provide valuable information about the health of the herd.

You should check for results indicating signs of liver fluke infection, pneumonia or other health issues seen at slaughter.

See our guide to abattoir post-mortem conditions for more information on the potential signs of disease

If you would like to order a hard copy of the Abattoir post-mortem conditions guide, please contact or call 0247 799 0069.

Respiratory disease in cattle

Bovine respiratory disease (BRD), or pneumonia, poses the most significant risk of disease in housed cattle.

Respiratory disease may be a greater problem in herds where there are other underlying issues, such as bovine viral diarrhoea.

It is essential to pay attention to the design of housing and ventilation to reduce the risks of respiratory disease.

Follow our steps for reducing the risk of BRD in your dairy beef cattle:

  • Try to allow cattle the option to run into outdoor yards – especially useful when using a straw blower
  • Consider an infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) vaccination if mixing and housing store cattle
  • Ensure there are no draughts at animal height – stoop down to their level to assess this
  • Bedding must be kept dry as pneumonia viruses live longer in warm, moist air
  • Check that water from troughs and downpipes is not getting onto beds
  • Vaccines to prevent and reduce the severity of pneumonia are available – discuss their use with the vet
  • Watch out for signs of respiratory disease – affected cattle may:
    • Be slow feeders
    • Have a raised temperature
    • Breathe quickly
    • Cough when moving around the pen
    • Have discharges from their nose and eyes
  • Treat pneumonia cases promptly with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs – consider the other cattle in the pen (early treatment is the most effective)
  • You may need to shave the backs of larger animals to reduce sweating and subsequent humidity in the shed

See our guide to BRD for more details on how to reduce the risk of pneumonia in cattle and guidance for housing and ventilation

Acidosis in dairy cattle

Acidosis occurs when cattle eat large amounts of carbohydrate-rich feeds, such as grains and concentrates, when they haven’t been properly introduced to it. This causes the rumen pH to fall below normal.

For example, the smaller the particle size following milling, the quicker fermentation occurs and the more severe the clinical signs of acidosis for a given amount ingested.

Clinical signs of acidosis in cattle

Your dairy cattle may have acidosis if you see signs of:

  • Colic
  • Restless behaviour
  • Weak cattle – they may fall and have trouble rising
  • Tooth grinding
  • Swollen abdomen
  • No diarrhoea for the first 1224 hours – thereafter, there is runny, smelly diarrhoea
  • Stool has a sweet-sour odour and may contain whole grains
  • Severe case: continuous laying down and death within 24–48 hours

How to prevent acidosis in cattle

Always introduce cattle to new rations slowly.

Gradually increase grain or concentrate feeding over a minimum of six weeks before ad-lib feeding. Allow more than 10% good-quality roughage in the diet.

Additional ways of preventing acidosis in cattle include:

  • Not grinding cereals into fine particles – crack the grain instead
  • Offering a source of long fibre such as straw – intake is likely to be 1–1.5 kg per day
  • Never letting ad-lib hoppers run out to prevent animals from gorging when they are refilled
  • (If you are not feeding cereals ad lib) Feeding them small meals throughout the day – avoid meal sizes greater than 2.5 kg per head per day for dry cereals
  • Consider grain moisture content – moist grains (which need to be treated with a suitable preservation method) tend to be easier to roll without shattering

Lameness in dairy cattle

Clean housing is essential for reducing lameness in beef cattle.

Lameness can be caused by:  

  • Foul of the foot
  • Digital dermatitis
  • Overgrowth
  • Sole abscess, sole ulcers or white line disease

You must examine lameness cases promptly. Seek advice if you are unsure of the diagnosis and treatment options.

You can avoid laminitis from ruminal acidosis in beef bulls by:

  • Gradually making changes to feed
  • Avoiding finely ground concentrates
  • Avoiding excessive starch levels in the ration
  • Allowing access to palatable straw
  • Introducing rumen buffers or yeasts into the diet

Parasite problems in grazing cattle

When managing grazing cattle, you should work out a parasite control plan with advice from the vet or animal health adviser.

Faecal samples can be used to assess the worm egg and larva burden in groups of stock.

When treating for parasites, ensure cattle are not under-dosed with anthelmintics and apply pour-on products carefully.

Parasite problems in dairy beef cattle can be controlled by limiting parasite burdens and not overusing anthelmintics. Parasites can build a resistance to anthelmintics if products are not used correctly.

Grazing cattle may be exposed to the following parasites:

  • Gut worms
  • Lungworm
  • Liver fluke

Read on for more details about each of these parasites.

Gut worms in cattle at pasture

Warm, wet summers are ideal conditions for gut worms to survive on pasture.

During such weather, consider a midseason wormer dose. All stock finishing their first grazing season should be wormed at housing.

By their second grazing season, most cattle will have developed a protective immunity to gut worms. During this season you should only need to worm animals showing poor growth rates.

Lungworm in beef cattle

Exposure to lungworm is variable. A typical sign is coughing while at pasture.

Untreated lungworm will predispose cattle to other forms of pneumonia.

During wet years, the midseason wormer can be timed to protect stock from the late-summer peak in lungworm.

Discuss preventative measures for lungworm with the vet.

Liver fluke in cattle

Humid, damp summers are ideal for the snail that is the intermediate host for liver fluke. Typically, the peak of infection is in late autumn.

Treatment for liver fluke after housing can be timed to catch all ingested larva.

On high-risk farms that practice early turnout, a treatment for liver fluke midseason will reduce pasture contamination.

Clostridial disease in cattle

Blackleg, tetanus and other clostridial diseases are a significant cause of loss in cattle, with grazed stock being at risk.

Vaccination is effective. You should discuss vaccination protocols with the vet.

How to treat cattle for disease

Always read the instructions of products before administering a treatment. Protocols can change and some products have specific administration routes.

If you are using an injectable treatment with beef cattle, always inject into the neck for the best results. This will also avoid damaging valuable meat cuts. See the illustration for more details.

Useful links

Access the ‘Dairy beef production systems' manual, for further practical advice

If you would like to order a hard copy of the Dairy beef production systems manual, please contact or call 0247 799 0069.