EAST LANSING, Mich. — Tackling a problem with Johne’s disease taught Jake Fisk that concentrating on the basics can help eliminate the spread of many diseases, not just Johne’s.
When Fisk’s farm, West End Dairy, a third-generation Holstein dairy operation located in Arenac County, experienced an outbreak of Johne’s disease in 1999, he opted to cull aggressively to try to eliminate the problem. He quickly learned that reducing the incidence of the disease required more than culling cows, however.
So, when his veterinarian, Dr. Jon Schwab, invited him to participate in the Michigan Johne’s Disease Control Demonstration Project, Fisk didn’t hesitate to join in hopes of learning more about the disease and how to manage it.
Johne’s (pronounced YO-neez) disease is a contagious and untreatable disease caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium paratuberculosis, or MAP.
It typically occurs in calves, but animals generally don’t express clinical signs of the disease until later in life.
The Johne’s Disease Control Demonstration Project was a near decade-long research project conducted by Michigan State University (MSU) researchers and MSU Extension specialists that evaluated Johne’s disease control strategies in an effort to identify which management practices are the most effective at controlling the spread of the disease.
Jake Fisk and his dad, Dan, joined the project in 2003, at the time when the herd was undergoing an international ownership change.
Over the course of seven years, the herd expanded from 230 animals to more than 500 cows by using both homegrown and purchased replacement heifers.
Working to control the Johne’s disease problem during a herd expansion can pose a unique set of challenges, but Fisk found that sticking to the basics helped to reduce the number of Johne’s-positive animals in the herd.
“We learned that it is really tough to completely eliminate Johne’s from the herd, especially when you are working to expand,” he said. “But with relatively easy and inexpensive changes, we can greatly reduce the problem.”
Focus on calves
The first step was to focus on newborn calves and to manage colostrum.
Newborn calves are removed as soon as possible from the calving area after birth and fed colostrum from cows that have tested negative for Johne’s. The area where cows calve is cleaned in between calvings, and fresh bedding is added to the pens.
In addition, calves and young heifers are raised away from the mature cows to avoid cross-contamination. Young stock don’t come in contact with mature animals until they are more than a year old.
“We learned that doing the right thing to control the spread of Johne’s was the right thing to do anyway to prevent disease transmission and optimize overall good calf health,” Fisk said.
“We witnessed an improvement in overall calf health because of the changes we made to control Johne’s.”
Because the herd was going through an expansion, the herd’s cull rate was relatively low throughout the course of the study. They did, however, track cows that tested positive for Johne’s and implemented a “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” rule.
“We wouldn’t cull a cow just based on the Johne’s test, but we would cull her if she got another ‘strike’ against her,” Fisk explained. “We didn’t want to cull an otherwise healthy and economically viable cow from our herd.”
Cows that test positive for Johne’s are tagged to make it easier to keep track of them. They calve in a separate maternity area, and colostrum from these cows is not fed to newborn calves.
“I wish I had known 10 years ago what I know now about managing Johne’s,” Fisk admitted. “We would have saved a lot of cows.
“Managing for Johne’s doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing program. We have put in place changes that work for us, and it has made a big difference.”
The Michigan Johne’s Disease Control Demonstration Project was a partnership between the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health, MSU Extension, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in collaboration with nine Michigan veterinary clinics.
Findings from the Michigan farms involved in the study were pooled with data collected from 17 other states as part of the larger, multi-state project, the National Johne’s Disease Control Demonstration Project.
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