Biosecurity on Beef Cattle Operations

Beef producers value pens and pastures of consistently healthy cattle with low treatment costs. Daily habits go a long way to reduce or prevent the spread of disease. It is important to understand the risks associated with working with beef cattle every day to ensure both the animals and the people who care for them remain safe.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) defines biosecurity as practices that prevent or mitigate disease from entering, spreading within or being released from operations that may contain livestock.  

Have questions about Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) in cattle, also referred to as Bovine Influenza A Virus (BIAV)?

Read this April 5, 2024, article by John Campbell, DVM, DVSC and listen to Episode 47 of the Beef Cattle and Health & Nutrition Podcast.

Key Points
Having a solid biosecurity policy and plan can prevent disease from striking your farm and help improve your response when it does. 
Cleaning and disinfecting techniques of equipment and facilities are an important part of biosecurity. 
Some diseases that affect cattle can also make humans sick, which is why proper personal protective equipment is important when working with animals.  
Diseases that are considered endemic or common in the population are important to include in a core vaccination program. 
The consequences of a trade-limiting disease outbreak on the national cow herd would be economically devastating. It is up to all travelers and producers to follow travel and biosecurity protocols to ensure our country remains free from these diseases.  

Biosecurity in Practice

Biosecurity hazards on beef operations are sometimes overlooked, however, the risk of introducing disease onto your farm is real and relatively common. Routine practices such as shared fence lines, buying in replacement breeding heifers or bulls, borrowing stock trailers, outsourcing farm work or hosting visitors can bring unwanted diseases onto your farm.

Fortunately, there are some practices that producers can implement to help manage their biosecurity risks.  Many commonsense practices already being implemented on farms across Canada are in line with biosecurity as part of everyday risk management. 

Watch as one southern Alberta farm family shares their story of navigating a devastating Cryptosporidium outbreak. This video highlights the importance of biosecurity, including the principles of bio-exclusion, bio-management, bio-containment and the One Health Initiative.

Think you have a closed herd? Think again.

Hover over the pins below to review common ways a herd becomes open, allowing disease to enter your herd.

Producers have a lot to gain by implementing a few straightforward biosecurity protocols on their farm. Preventing diseases can reduce costly production losses such as depressed weight gains or poor conception rates, reduce the cost of treatment and decrease death loss, all factors that are critical to profitability and animal welfare. Incorporating biosecurity practices and principles that prevent or mitigate the impact of common health risks, like bovine viral diarrhea virus (BVD) and calf scours, also work against serious foreign animal disease outbreaks such as foot and mouth disease.  

Biosecurity Planning

Preventing disease and limiting the spread is important to maintain the health and longevity of a herd, avoid costs associated with treatment and production loss, reduce overuse of antibiotics and ensure public trust through food safety. The first step in creating an effective biosecurity plan is to identify where your operation may be at risk and take steps to minimize, if not eliminate, those risks. 

Step 1: Identify your risks 

In a recent biosecurity webinar, Blake Balog, DVM, highlights that biosecurity is as easy as just a few simple things done right every day. A starting point for producers wanting to gain perspective on biosecurity risks specific to their farm can be: 

Watch the full video, “Biosecurity During Calving” from VBP+

Step 2: Develop Protocols 

Once a risk assessment has been completed, biosecurity protocols can be created. This will help minimize the risk of disease entering the herd, help to contain it once a disease has been identified on premises and ensure it does not spread to other locations once established.  

Hover over the red pushpins below for specific protocols for each biosecurity area.

The Canadian Beef Cattle On-Farm Biosecurity Standard
Click to download the Canadian Beef Cattle On-Farm Biosecurity Standard Implementation Manual

The Canadian Beef Cattle On-Farm Biosecurity Standard and accompanying Implementation Manual are valuable resources focused on reducing the risk and impact of disease in cattle operations across the country. They outline science-based, practical and effective on-farm biosecurity practices specific to Canadian beef cattle that are low cost to the producer. 

The Standard is built on four basic principles of on-farm risk reduction: 

  • Managing and minimizing animal movement risks
  • Managing the movement of people, vehicles, equipment and tools
  • Managing animal health practices
  • Biosecurity knowledge and training of personnel on the operation’s biosecurity plan

By reviewing the Standard, producers can identify key biosecurity gaps and fixes for their operation. 

Specific, practical ways beef producers can improve on-farm biosecurity include: 

  • Establish and maintain a veterinary-client-patient relationship (VCPR) with a veterinarian
  • Document and share information about comingled animals with past and future owners
avoid cross-contamination with separate stomach tubes for administering colostrum to sick newborn beef calves
Avoid cross-contamination of instruments. For example, during calving, ensure there are two marked stomach tubes: one for administering colostrum to newborn calves and one used to treat sick calves. Clean between uses.
  • Ensure staff, visitors, vehicles, equipment and tools are clean when entering and exiting production areas
  • Segregate, and when warranted, vaccinate, test and otherwise treat incoming animals 
  • Post biosecurity signs at access points to production area and farmyard 
  • Manage livestock to reduce exposure to wildlife 
  • Do not introduce new diseases into your herd by using raw colostrum products, purchasing nurse cows or orphaned calves from other farms
  • When treating animals, ensure there is no cross-contamination between clean instruments or tools and “dirty” tools
  • Ensure staff understand how and why biosecurity is applied on the operation 

Cleaning and Disinfecting

Cleaning and disinfecting, while two different things, are important parts of biosecurity. The cleaning process refers to the removal of organic materials and any barriers preventing chemical disinfectants. Disinfecting can only happen once the surface is clean, and the disinfecting product can have access to the pathogens on a surface for a defined amount of time.  

Cleaning can be broken down into three steps:  

  • Dry cleaning: Physically removing as much of the organic matter as possible prior to applying any detergents or water (e.g., shoveling out the trailer before washing it or scraping boots before heading to the boot dip).  
  • Wet cleaning: The process of applying detergent and water. The detergent can chemically break down the biofilm (a thin, slimy film of bacteria that adheres to a surface) and the mechanical action of scrubbing and water spray will whisk away the organic material that remains in the way of proper disinfection. Rinse all cleaner residues from surfaces using clean water at the end of this step.   
  • Drying: All surfaces should be allowed to dry completely before proceeding to disinfection.   
disinfectant manual sprayer for biosecurity measures on livestock farms

Once your surface is clean and dry, you can proceed to disinfection.  

Disinfection can only occur once the surface is clean.  

Disinfection products (such as Prevail, Dettol or Virkon) are chemical compounds designed to destroy specific pathogens. For these products to work, the area to be disinfected must be free from organic compounds (such as manure, dirt, feed and bedding) to ensure the chemicals can encounter the pathogens themselves and are not inactivated by any organic materials. 

There are three main considerations when choosing a disinfectant: 

  • What pathogens are you dealing with? For example, are you trying to prevent as many pathogens as possible when you clean out a neighbor’s trailer for use on your farm? Or, have you had an outbreak in your calving barn, and you know specifically what pathogen you are targeting? Be careful to choose a product that covers the types of pathogens that may be a risk to your herd.  
  • Mixing instructions: Ensure you are following the product label and mixing instructions. Not mixing a product at a high enough concentration can lead to incomplete disinfection. Mixing a product at too strong of a rate can potentially cause health effects from concentrated chemical exposure. Either mistake is a waste of disinfectant and money.  
  • What is the contact time to accomplish disinfection? Many disinfectants need upwards of 30 minutes of “contact time.” Verify the recommended contact time on the product label. During this time, the surface must be kept wet with the disinfectant, which can be challenging to accomplish, especially with vertical smooth surfaces such as stall walls or trailer walls. Many products or product combinations have taken this obstacle into consideration and will include a foaming action to help the product adhere to surfaces for a longer period. Once contact time has been accomplished, most disinfectants will need to be rinsed off and the surface air dried. 

Contact time is the amount of time that a chemical must be in contact with a pathogen to destroy it.

disinfectant table of compounds that best treat microorganisms

Zoonosis and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) 

Farmers and ranchers work closely with their animals daily. This close contact puts them at a higher risk than the average population of coming into contact with potentially dangerous diseases.

Following are some pathogens that affect cattle and can make humans sick as well. 

A zoonotic pathogen can cause disease in both humans and animals.

Zoonotic Pathogen Chart

Common Name  Pathogen  Risk of Exposure  Route of zoonotic transmission Clinical Signs in Cattle  Clinical Signs in


Bacillus anthracis (bacterial)  Rare Breathing in spores, spores coming into contact with open sores Trembling, high temperature, difficulty breathing, convulsions. Fast-acting, so the most common symptom is sudden death with blood oozing from the orifices of the carcass Skin ulceration, fever, chills, shortness of breath, confusion, dizziness, cough, nausea, vomiting, stomach pains, headache, sweats, extreme tiredness, body aches
Campy, Campylobacter  Campylobacter jejuni, Campylobacter coli or Campylobacter fetus (bacterial)  Rare Consumption of contaminated milk and meat products, ingestion or contact with infected feces No symptoms, enteritis, abortion Vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, miscarriage in pregnant women
Chlamydiosis   Chlamydia abortus (bacterial)  Rare Direct contact with contaminated animals  Abortions  Flu-like illness, septicemia, pneumonia, fetal loss in pregnant women
Q Fever  Coxiella burnetii 
Occasional Direct contact with reproductive tissues, consuming raw milk or dairy products Late-stage abortion, malaise, anorexia Fever, headache, chills, flu-like symptoms, pneumonia, hepatitis, miscarriage, premature birth, low infant birth weight
Crypto  Cryptosporidium (protozoal parasite)  Very Common Parasite is shed in infected animals’ feces thus infecting the environment. Parasite may be ingested from infected food or water or not washing hands properly following contact with infective animals or feces. Many animals can be infected. Clinical signs in cattle are most commonly observed in calves less than 1 month old. Symptoms range from mild to severe diarrhea. Diarrhea, often profuse and watery, associated with abdominal cramping, fever, malaise, anorexia, nausea, vomiting
Dermatophilosis, rain rot, strawberry foot rot  Dermatophilus congolensis 
Rare Direct contact with infected skin or through biting insects. Wet conditions encourage bacteria to spread. Thick scabs form matting of hair, when this hair is pulled the tufts look like a paintbrush. Spreads rapidly in moist conditions.  Development of sores that form ulcers, often resulting in scarring
E. coli  Escherichia coli 
Common  Most commonly by ingesting contaminated food or water, especially undercooked ground beef, unpasteurized juice and milk and vegetables. Handling or being exposed to feces of a carrier animal. Person-to-person transmission by lack of good handwashing following diaper changes. May be transmitted through swimming pools.  Most E. coli is harmless, but some strains can cause diarrhea in calves, usually between 4 days and 2 months of age Most E. coli is harmless, but some strains can cause vomiting, stomach cramping, nausea, diarrhea and kidney damage, particularly in young children and elderly people 
Giardia, Beaver Fever  Giardia duodenalis or intestinalis 
(protozoal parasite) 
Occasional  Present in soil, food and water contaminated by infected feces. Transmission most commonly occurs through ingestion of untreated water and occasionally from swimming in infected sources. May occur via consumption of fecal contaminated food.  Many asymptomatic infections occur. Some cattle, especially younger calves, may experience watery diarrhea with mucous appearance. Chronic infection may reduce weight gain.    Diarrhea and abdominal cramping 
Lepto, Leptospirosis  Leptospira (bacterial)  Occasional  Direct contact with infected urine, contaminated water, aborted tissues. The bacteria can survive in soil and water for months.  Abortion and weak born calves, occasionally severe acute cases present with fever, anemia, jaundice, hemoglobinuria, and kidney failure.  Mild flu-like symptoms that can progress to severe liver and kidney disease
Listeriosis  Listeria monocytogenes 
Rare Ingestion of contaminated food, direct contact with reproductive tissues or fluids Neurological signs such as circling, incoordination and facial paralysis, abortions in pregnant cows  Most humans are resistant to infection, yet immune compromised, pregnant or those taking antacids are at increased risk. Infection typically occurs after consumption of processed meats or unpasteurized milk products. Pregnancy loss and septicemia can occur. 
Milkers’ nodules  Pseudocowpox virus, Parapox virus (viral)  Rare Contact with teats and udders with active infection Small raised sores and scabs on the teats and udders of cows Painful, scabby sores on the hands and arms that resolve after several weeks
Rabies  Rabies lyssavirus 
Rare Direct contact with infected animal saliva (bite, droplet on mucous membrane, aerosol, broken skin) Changes in behavior, excessive vocalization, difficulty swallowing, drool, paralysis. Considered fatal once clinical signs evident. Almost invariably fatal. Initial symptoms lasting 4-10 (headache, fever, malaise, flu-like Illness, apprehension). 
Furious Rabies (80% of cases): progressively worsening central nervous system behavioral manifestations (anxiety, hyperactivity, excited behavior, itching, painful sensations). After a few days, death occurs by cardiac arrest. 
Paralytic (dumb) rabies: paralysis insidiously ascends, and the person becomes increasingly confused until coma, then death. 
Salmonellosis  Salmonella (bacterial)  Common Direct contact with an infected animal or its feces, ingestion of raw or undercooked meat or animal products. Bacteria can live for months to years in the environment.   Calves: fever, depression, diarrhea, dehydration. 

Cows: Abortion 

Sudden onset of headache, fever, abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and occasionally vomiting. Diarrhea is typically self-limiting and can last 3-7 days. Fever, if present resolves typically after 48-72 hrs. Dehydration may occur especially in the very young and old.   
Ringworm, Dermatophytosis  Trichophyton species or Microspora species (fungal)  Very Common  Direct contact with infected animal or infected environment. Humans encouraged to perform good hygiene and hand/arm washing following contact with infected animal.  Circular areas of hair loss and crusting Circular, dry, itchy areas of skin inflammation
References: Notifiable Disease Guidelines (, Zoonotic Diseases of Cattle (Kansas State University), Introduction to the Implementation Manual for Canada’s Beef Cattle Biosecurity Standard (Government of Canada), Zoonotic Diseases (BC Centre for Disease Control)
Dr. Carling Matejka demonstrates proper PPE use during calving to avoid the spread of zoonotic pathogens.
Dr. Carling Matejka demonstrates proper use of PPE during calving.

The disease link between cattle and humans can be serious. For example, cattle infected with Q fever (Coxiella burnetii), can infect humans.

“The detection rate in 2022 was about 12% from all placentas tested from [bovine] abortions. These are good arguments for producers to consistently wear appropriate PPE when intervening in calvings. This organism can cause severe and debilitating disease in people,” explains a pathologist from the Western Canadian Animal Health Network (WeCAHN). Download the full WeCAHN report. 

Biosecurity practices are designed to protect animals within the herd and to keep those who care for them safe.

The following PPE should always be considered: 

  • Coveralls: Coveralls not only protect your clothing, but they also provide an easy-to-wash alternative to keep disease from being carried from one location to another. Donning a clean pair of coveralls between working environments will ensure no pathogens are transferred between sites or brought into your home where they could come in contact with your loved ones.  
  • Boots: Steel toes will help protect a producers’ feet, but having easy-to-wash boots will ensure that the small threats that lurk in the muck and the mire don’t work their way into areas they don’t belong.  
  • Gloves: Many zoonotic pathogens gain entry into the human host via bodily fluids. Whenever working with sick animals, always use disposable gloves, and ensure you change them before starting on a new animal. Always use disposable shoulder-length palpation sleeves whenever palpating an animal or assisting with a calving. This step will keep both the animal and the producer safe.   
  • Hygiene: No PPE can ever replace good hygiene. Regardless of whether you wore gloves or not, hand washing must always be a top priority when dealing with animals.  

Endemic Disease

An endemic disease is a disease that is always present in a particular population or region and is expected to remain indefinitely. Preventative practices are a producer’s best protection against endemic disease and include vaccination of the herd, good sanitation and biosecurity practices, optimal nutrition and genetic selection

Within our cow-calf herds, these are some of the diseases that are important to cover in core vaccination programs. Disease risk in an individual herd needs to be analyzed by a producer and their veterinarian on a case-by-case basis for risk-based vaccine recommendations based on herd history and regional disease prevalence.  

Examples of endemic diseases in Canadian cow herds:

core vaccine list for beef cattle

Reportable and Trade-Limiting Disease 

According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), reportable diseases are significant to human or animal health, or to the Canadian economy. Not generally present in the industry, some have been eradicated and others have rarely — if ever — occurred in the Canadian industry and are sometimes referred to as “foreign animal diseases” or “emerging diseases” in the case of newer ones.

The prevention of foreign animal diseases is the responsibility of all international travelers and foreign workers and involves respecting and following biosecurity measures to ensure the safety of the industry.

Examples of reportable diseases affecting cattle include: 

  • Bluetongue virus (Bluetongue) 
  • Mycobacterium bovis (bovine tuberculosis or bTB) 
  • Brucella abortus (brucellosis) 
  • Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) 
  • Foot and mouth disease (FMD) 
    • The Canadian Cattle Association has developed a simple guideline for those travelling to countries affected by foot and mouth disease.  

These diseases have the potential to restrict Canada’s trade and export capacity and can negatively affect consumer preferences and industry practices. It is paramount that industry stakeholders are prepared for potential outbreaks before they happen.  

The Animal Health Emergency Management Project (AHEM) has many resources that can help producers take the necessary steps to be prepared in the face of an animal health emergency. 

  • Video on the Producer Handbook:

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Thank you to Dr. Jennifer Davies of the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine Diagnostic Services Unit and Lori Zillman, RNBN Alberta Health Services, Public Health for their expertise and review of some of the materials featured on this page.  

Expert Review

This content was last reviewed January 11, 2024.

This topic was last revised on May 13, 2024 at 12:13 pm.