Cattle production: A comprehensive introduction to ticks and tick-borne diseases

Ticks and tick-borne diseases are an enormous threat to cattle and to the men and women who farm them. This threat is greater in warmer and wetter areas.

As far back as 20 years ago, over a million cattle died every year (in the sub-region) from just a single tick-borne parasitic disease, East Coast fever.

Direct and indirect production losses caused by ticks and the diseases they transmit are more difficult to get a handle on, but they are certainly significant.


A visual representation of tick-borne diseases would look more like a patchwork quilt than an easy-to-read graphic. It’s a complex, complicated and multi-layered disease problem with equally multi-layered solutions.

When I started farming I wanted clear, simple solutions to problems. I got angry with the people I relied on for help. I wanted straightforward answers and easy-to-follow programmes from the experts, I wanted doses and directions.

After all, this was agriculture, I reasoned, not conservation, and in any case I was getting tired of walking the high wire like a trapeze artist without a net.

Here’s the lesson – a farmer is constantly engaged in a balancing act. He (or she) must keep scanning the horizon, stay on the lookout, pay attention to small changes and re-design approaches and solutions to stay on top of difficulties.

Hard as this may be to accept it’s best to do it straight away. Recognise that you, the farmer, are your own best safety-net.


Tick-borne diseases can really test your ability to perform the balancing act and keep the focus on problem solving.

It’s tough, but if you farm cattle every effort is geared towards improving production. High mortalities in your herd will take you down.

The smaller your herd, the less you can afford to have animal deaths, so keep your animals alive. Keep working towards that.


Dr Pete Oberem of Afrivet shines a bright light in a murky field when he advises cattle farmers to take a step back and ask this basic question: “Why do I keep cattle?” Keep going back to that question.

Oberem knows, as we all do, that you are not keeping cattle as pets and that, as a stock owner, you are dependent on your animals for your livelihood. In this case, the cost of dips and vaccines, the amount of time and energy you spend dedicated to checking and re-checking your animals, and planning and implementing is all part of good management.

The better your strategy and your will to carry it out, the more affordable things become. For example, the fact that you can’t afford to dip every fortnight should tighten up other aspects of your management.

Your eyes-on-the-herd practice is rigourous, counting the ticks on animals is an essential practice, not a desirable one, and discussing strategies with fellow grazers is critical.

If you are not able to meet basic management requirements, farming cattle isn’t for you.


  • Apart from disease transmission, ticks themselves are ectoparasites (parasites that live on the outside of their hosts).
  • While they attach to the hide so that they can take in blood, they injure animals at attachment sites.
  • Untreated, these wounds can form abscesses and cause tissue death.
  • This, in turn, leads to problems like the loss of a cow’s quarter, or the destruction of the testes of a bull.
  • Early treatment always pays off. When you see the problem, remove the ticks and treat the wound.
  • Constant pain and irritation can depress the immune system, making the animal more vulnerable to other diseases, reducing production and causing loss of profit.
  • Damage is inevitable where ticks cluster, so watch out for these clusters. Your tick load is too high, dip or spot treat.
  • The amount of blood taken up by a heavy tick load can cause a 25 kg loss in one season.
Ticks can cause serious injury and death if not treated immediately. Photo: Pierre van Niekerk

“If you’re in production you have to take the economic loss into account,” says Oberem. This puts the cost of dipping and/or vaccinating squarely into perspective.


Rotating cattle through camps or grazing zones can be used as a tool to manage TBDs; on the other hand, a beautiful stand of Themeda dominated grazing like this can also harbour armies of ticks waiting on the grass for a chance to attach, feed and complete their life cycles. Photo: Nan Smith

In rural areas where stockmen graze their cattle on jointly accessed communal lands, the animals must be treated as one unit.

Ticks and tick-borne parasites do not differentiate between individual herds, therefore the challenge is a joint one and the stockmen should get together and decide on how they will manage the disease threat as a group.

As a group, stock farmers can pool money to pay for dips and vaccines and rotate daily checking of animals.

Managing cattle movement on the veld is another tool in managing tick infestations. You move the herd out of one area into another within the grazing lands, and so on, until you get back to the original grazing area where tick populations should be reduced because they have had no access to host animals for a while.


And it’s still not simple. Ticks have become resistant to certain dips and it is now generally accepted that dips will never offer a total solution to tick infestations.

The trick, says Geoff Gordon, experienced stockman and vet technician, is to dip strategically while keeping a light load of ticks on the animal.

There is no hard rule for this, but five ticks is probably too few, while more than 50 may be too many. Constant practice and observation will sharpen your ability to judge the loads correctly.

Cattle, more so the indigenous types, acquire immunity to the parasite challenges in their range areas by surviving parasitic infection in the first six months of life. Rule number one – don’t dip animals under six months.

Indigenous, Indicus type cattle are inherently better equipped to overcome TBDs than Taurus type cattle and will more than compensate in resilience to disease challenges what they don’t make in weight gain at the feedlot. It doesn’t matter how much weight your animal puts on at the feedlot if it never gets there. Keep a moderate to light tick load on the animal to maintain immunity. Photo: Nan Smith

A high rate of infection, which will come from a high load of infected ticks, is likely to kill the animal, but moderate to light infections give natural immunity.

It’s something like being vaccinated by the parasites. Once the animal has been exposed and has survived the infection, it acquires immunity.

It’s also important to recognise the dips that work in your area and to stay away from those to which ticks have built up a resistance. For example, organophosphate-based dips are said to be less effective due to increased levels of resistance in tick populations.

Dips with growth inhibitory mechanisms could be worth looking into, especially with some anecdotal evidence of a real reduction in the number of times the herd needs dipping on an annual basis.

Every time you are tempted to let something slide, or to use a lack of funds as an excuse, remember Pete Oberem’s question…Why am I farming cattle?

Also read:
Livestock production: Check and revise vaccination schedules
Eliminate the ticks on your cattle
Watch for tick-borne diseases
Ticks and tick-borne diseases – East Coast fever
More about ticks for stockmen and -women

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