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0107 PD: Danelle Bickett-Weddle talks about biosecurity

Published on 10 January 2007

I recently chatted with Dr. Danelle Bickett-Weddle of the Center for Food Security and Public Health in Ames, Iowa. Bickett-Weddle helped develop a questionnaire for dairy producers to assess the biosecurity risks on their operations. Her current doctoral research is looking for correlations between risk management practices and production parameters. She hopes her current research will help dairy producers identify risk areas that, when improved, lead to increased profitability. The following is a portion of my interview with her.

1. How long have you been studying biosecurity-related issues?

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I’ve been involved in the dairy industry 15 years. I spent a lot of time focusing on biosecurity while not even realizing I was doing so. Over the last five years, it has become more of a concern of mine. My Ph.D. research is based on dairy biosecurity.

2. How do you define biosecurity?

I think it’s fairly simple. It is the prevention of disease entry and spread on a farm. But, as producers understand, there is so much more to it than just that.

I look at biosecurity as making sure diseases don’t come onto the farm, and if they do come on, how we limit their spread. A lot of times I try to steer producers to risk management.

They need to understand what is the biggest risk to their farm and then manage it accordingly. Every farm is different. There is not one clear-cut way to manage biosecurity for every single farm.

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3. What are some things that fall under risk management?

We start from the outside of the farm and work our way in. When you start to do a risk assessment, you start asking questions about perimeter things. Questions include: How do you handle visitors? How do you handle new animal arrivals – any testing or quarantine? Do you have a visitor log-in? Do you provide boots or coveralls? These things help minimize a disease entering a farm either on people or on animals.

So we look at risk assessment questions that say, “Ok, is there any risk of disease coming onto this farm?”

Then, within the farm, we ask questions about protocols. Questions include: If you’ve got young stock on the farm, do you always start chores with them first? Do you work with sick animals, and if you do, do you change clothes or boots when you return to work in the maternity pen?

These are different ways to assess risk within that farm to find out ways we can help minimize disease entry and spread of say Johne’s, BVD or Salmonella.

4. Do dairies do a better job protecting from the outside in? Or vice versa?

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I think a lot of it depends on the farm and what their risk is. Farms that are large and have heifers raised off farm, may have policies for those animals coming back. Farms that raise all their calves and aren’t transporting animals as much may take a focus on everybody else coming onto the farm. So, it just depends on a farm’s specific situation.

5. How would you summarize your program for a dairy producer?

What we do is look at the risk for disease entry and spread based on routes of transmission – how diseases get into animals or people. One other thing we do that is different from some other assessments that are out there is look at the two-legged critters – the people on the farm and their risk for zoonotic disease. At the Center for Food Security and Public Health we are as concerned with keeping the two-legged person healthy as we are at keeping a four-legged critter healthy.

Not only do we look at how diseases get into animals and protect them against domestic or foreign animal diseases but we also look at how disease gets into people and how we can help protect them. So those are the main focus areas of the risk management program.

We also have information for veterinarians so they can do a self-assessment of their clinic or their mobile unit. Whether they work on small animals or large animals, we’ve got some questions they can ask to make sure they are not a disease risk as they go from farm to farm. We help producers do a self-assessment, and we help veterinarians do a self-assessment and then combine that information to help manage disease risk.

6. Since you started studying biosecurity issues, what has changed about biosecurity?

I think the biggest thing I’ve seen change in the last decade is awareness. Producers are becoming more aware of the risks than they used to be. Overall, people are a little more aware of the risks out there. They may not be doing much about it, but they are at least a little more aware than they were 15 years ago.

7. Are you concerned about our nation’s biosecurity?

Part of my interest includes the concept of agroterrorism and bioterrorism, and I think since 9/11, it has hit on the home front. That pointed out vulnerability and made us ask, “Where are our vulnerabilities in agriculture?”

We lose farms for various reasons each year in agriculture. You’d hate to lose anybody because of an intentional introduction of disease or even an unintentional introduction. So trying to protect the dairy infrastructure, our milk supply and our food supply, has been a focus of mine in the last several years.

8. How much does the potential for a terrorism act toward agriculture concern you?

I think, overall, it is a concern. Is it the primary driving force for me? No.

The thing that I’ve learned as I’ve talked with producers is that we talk about those “big, bad uglies” or foreign animal diseases and how devastating they can be, and what they say is, “Oh, yeah, yeah, but how much did I lose to Johne’s or salmonella last year?” I think the thing we have to understand is everyday we are challenged with diseases, and we have to look at what kind of things can we do to prevent or minimize disease introduction.

Some people are very terrified of the issue of agroterrorism. So how do we help protect the infrastructure of your farm? We put risk management steps in place. Then when a “big, bad ugly” hits, you’ve already got that insurance policy wrapped around your farm.

I think the risk is there. How big is it? It’s hard to say. We’ve got to attack both types of diseases (foreign and domestic) and get more bang for our buck.

9. Is biosecurity something only veterinarians care about? If not, why should dairy producers care about it?

In my opinion, anybody involved in animal health and food production should be concerned about minimizing disease spread. If we look at it from a financial standpoint, dairymen have a vested interest in minimizing disease risk because it maximizes profitability. It means fewer diseases on the farm, more money in a producer’s hands and less to spend on treatments, equaling better milk production and reproduction. For a dairy producer, it’s about profit and keeping animals healthy.

Veterinarians, on the other hand, are in the animal health business. We took an oath at graduation that we would benefit society, relieve animal suffering and protect public health. Veterinarians have the ability to help producers find those disease risks on an operation, and we have an obligation to help them implement practical management protocols to help decrease that disease risk. From a veterinarian’s standpoint, it’s an obligation. It’s why we do what we do, I hope.

10. What elements combine to make a positive producer-veterinarian relationship as it relates to biosecurity?

In the work that I’ve done, I’ve noticed biosecurity can be an eye-opener for both parties. When you sit down and go through the risk assessment process, you’re asking questions about things that you see everyday but have never really thought of in a new light.

A lot of times veterinarians find out actual protocols on farms rather than perceived protocols. Every time we do a risk assessment we have something called a pre-assessment questionnaire that the producer fills out. It includes a lot of open-ended questions to help the veterinarian understand what a producer perceives as a risk and some of the areas on the farm that may need more attention. Every time we’ve done that the veterinarian comes back and says, “Wow, I didn’t realize that was happening.” I think the open communication that happens with the whole process makes everyone more aware of where the risks are.

11. Do biosecurity measures only protect against foreign animal diseases? If not, why?

One of the approaches we took when we started developing these risk management tools was to find out where the weak links are. Are those weak links how disease gets on the farm or how disease spreads within the farm? Instead of looking at a foot-and-mouth-disease risk assessment, we said, “Well, how does disease get in?” So we base everything off of routes of disease transmission.

We look at diseases that are spread via aerosol, direct contact, fomite, oral and vector-borne pathways. The thing about this method of analysis is we can put into place management plans that will minimize oral spread of disease, including Johne’s, listeriosis and salmonella. Then those same protective measures are going to protect against a foreign animal disease because foot-and-mouth disease enters into an animal the same way salmonella does. We try to show there is a common link. If we can prevent it from coming into the animal, it doesn’t matter what the disease name is – we can design control measures to put in place.

12. What benefits can a dairy producer receive from addressing biosecurity issues on his or her farm?

When you look at it from minimizing disease risk, it should lead to profitability. So if you’ve got animals that are not immune challenged, they’ve got more energy to put into milk production, more energy to put into reproduction and, for heifers, more energy to put into growth. Longevity is also a benefit when you minimize disease risk.

By increasing milk production and longevity through decreased disease risk, you’re putting dollars in your pocket. That to me is the big-picture benefit for a producer.

13. Where should a producer get started with biosecurity?

Biosecurity is something that is pretty daunting at first. The first two things I talk to producers about are: Do you think there is a risk of disease coming onto the farm? And, if you were to have a serious disease outbreak, can you financially recover? If they can’t answer yes to those two questions, we have to dive in and start a risk assessment to find out where the weaknesses exist. That is the easiest place to start.

We’ve got some self-assessments that are available on our website. They help producers get their arms around some of the risk areas on their farms.

All the questions are written in a “yes, no or maybe” format, with “yes” being the right answer. The reason we did that was as the process is going along producers learn the way to manage disease risk. One of the questions says, “Do you feed single-source colostrum to all newborn calves?” If producers answer no, they know that right away they should be feeding single-source colostrum to all their newborn calves to minimize disease risk. We don’t assess a score.

No’s and maybe’s are risk areas. With the expanded online database of questions, they get a printout with management steps for those risk areas. So if the question asks, “Do you feed single-source colostrum to all newborn calves?” and they answer, “No,” there will be a statement that comes up with that question that describes how to feed single-source colostrum and its importance. So we don’t just leave them hanging with a “no” answer. We try to give them practical management plans right back.

To me there’s no sense in implementing what the neighbor has tried – you know, the ‘latest and greatest’ – because your farm may have completely different risks than his or her farm. To me the best place to start is with that self-assessment.

You can do a risk assessment and answer 99 percent of the questions with “yes,” but that other 1 percent could be pretty dramatic. That’s where it really helps to have that third-party, a veterinarian you might say, who knows that farm and that area. They can look at short-term goals and long-term goals for that producer to prioritize and identify specific approaches to managing disease risk on that farm.

14. How willing are producers to change when they know they have a biosecurity issue?

If they realize there is a risk of disease entry or spread and they realize they can’t afford to take a financial hit, most of them are pretty anxious for new ideas.

I think the advantage of our approach is it isn’t a cookie-cutter approach. By doing something that is specific to their farm management plan, producers are a lot more willing to implement change because they understand this is for me, this is for my farm. They seem to be a lot more accepting once a management plan is tailored to their needs.

15. In your opinion, how biosecure is the average dairy in the United States? On a 1 to 10 scale?

First, I don’t think there is an average dairy out there. Every farm is different. Overall, I think dairies have improved. If 10 were the best, we’re not there. If 1 were the lowest, we’re definitely not there. I would tend to say 7, because I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt.

I’ve been on some really, really fabulous farms, and I’ve been on some farms that scare me. There’s a pretty wide range out there. Like anything else, there’s always room for improvement.

And what about diseases in the future? E. coli 0157:H7 wasn’t here 25 years ago, or we hadn’t diagnosed it before that. But look what it’s done to the spinach industry. It’s the kind of thing where we’ve always got to strive to be a little bit better tomorrow than we are today through disease prevention efforts.

16. Are there areas that most dairies could improve upon?

There are a couple of broad areas where I would start with a producer. From a financial standpoint, the two biggest expenses are the animals and the feed. And, from an income standpoint, liquid milk on the farm is another thing to consider. I ask, “What do producers want to protect the most?”

Do producers want to protect their income source, the milk, or do they want to look at making sure they have healthy animals on the farm and that their feed is not contaminated?

I think those are different ways to approach risk management. It really depends on what the producer perceives as his or her biggest risk and that is where they should start.

There’s a lot things we can do that is hard to put a dollar-sign value on because it’s insurance. It’s like flood or fire insurance, we hope we never have to use it, but in the event of an emergency, it’s there waiting for us.

17. Why do you encourage producers to look at your program online?

Instead of trying to spent money on the latest and greatest foot bath, boots or perimeter fencing, our program empowers producers to look at their operation and find their holes. It gives them the ability to spend money on what their biggest holes are and put a management plan in place. Rather than trying to take what the neighbor did and say, “Oh, that will work for me.”

I think the biggest benefit is the program makes them look at their farms in a new light and put control measures in place to either stop disease entry or minimize disease spread.

For more information about risk management assessments for dairy operations, visit the Center for Food Security and Public Health’s website at www.cfsph.iastate.edu/brm/dairyresources.htm

Danelle Bickett-Weddle

Associate Director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health

To contact Danelle, e-mail her at

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