Horn flies: Profit-robbing pests

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When it comes to raising cattle, every pound counts. And, as every veterinarian and producer knows, there are always several factors that can steal dollars from the bottom line. In fact, one of the most economically devastating threats, especially for pastured cattle, measures only about the size of a pencil eraser — it’s the horn fly.

“Even though horn flies are small pests, they can be a big problem,” said Roger Winter, DVM, technical services veterinarian for AgriLabs. “According to the USDA, the detrimental impact of horn flies is more than $1 billion per year in the U.S., with up to $60 million dollars spent on insecticidal control. Financial loss can be attributed to reduction in weight gains, feed efficiency and milk yields as well as loss of blood and energy used trying to dislodge flies.”

Blood Loss Equals Lost Gains

Horn flies take anywhere from 25-38 blood meals per day and with large numbers feeding on one individual animal. This can result in a significant amount of blood loss each day. Unlike most other flies, horn flies remain on the host animals constantly and leave only for a brief period to lay eggs on very fresh manure.

Horn flies have a piercing-sucking mouth part that is similar to a mosquito but is more painful because it’s larger,” said Bob Pennington, MS, consulting veterinary entomologist for SmartVet. “Hundreds of flies, each biting around 30 times a day, can result in up to one-third of a liter of blood lost per animal, per day. That’s a considerable amount of energy loss.

“Numerous studies have been conducted to understand the economic impact of horn flies on cow and calf-weaning weights. Very conservative figures show that horn flies can result in one-tenth to one-third of a pound in reduction in weight gains per calf, per day. For example, in a five-month period (150 days), that equals 15 to 50 pounds reduction in weaning weights. At approximately $1.60 per pound, a 30-pound weight reduction results in an average income loss of $48 per head due to horn flies. If a producer has 50 head of cattle, that equals $2,400 total income loss, and for 100 head it’s $4,800.

When to Treat

“Instead of feeding regularly, cows are fighting the awful bite from horn flies by switching their tails, throwing their heads, kicking and stomping to dislodge them,” said Pennington. “When doing this, they are not as efficient when it comes to grazing and meat and milk production.”

Treatment and prevention are key to controlling horn flies. The best time for producers to justify taking horn fly control measures that will generate a positive return on investment is when the flies reach the economic threshold. On average, if more than 200 flies are observed on a single beef cow or stocker animal it is considered the “treatment threshold.” For a single calf or lactating dairy cow, it’s 50 flies.

“Throughout the fly season, weekly monitoring for horn flies is highly recommended,” said Winter. “It’s usually best to monitor between the hours of 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. when horn flies are most visible on the shoulders and sides of cattle. On hotter days, the flies tend to migrate to the cow’s belly where it’s cooler and harder to observe.”

Fly Season Control Options

Horn fly infestations can vary greatly by region due to climate. In Northern areas, the season usually lasts anywhere from four to five months, whereas in Southern states, they can endure more than half a year of horn fly nuisance. For this reason, season-long control is typically recommended.

Pennington suggests these tips to consider when developing a herd fly-control program:

Withhold tagging or pour-on treatments until horn fly numbers reach about 100 per side of animal. This will keep them from being applied too early. It takes more than 200 flies per cow to have an economic impact on weight gain of nursing calves. Remove insecticide ear tags in the fall.

Use of oral larvicide treatment such as Rabon or an Altosid is a good way to reduce fly breeding in manure.

Lastly, the most important way to safeguard against horn flies becoming resistant to insecticide is to rotate different modes of action. There are many methods available to control horn flies such as insecticidal ear tags, dust bags, concentrated pour-ons, animal sprays, backrubbers and oral larvicides available in minerals and feed supplements. Horn flies are notorious for building resistance to some classes of chemicals, so producers should use an integrated program with multiple products for the best protection.

New, Unique Form of Horn Fly Control

Most recently, AgriLabs introduced VetGun, an innovative, new concept in insecticide delivery that offers producers another tool for treating horn flies. The power behind the VetGun is the AiM-L VetCap, a scientifically developed capsule containing an EPA-approved topical insecticide called Lamba cyhalothrin — a proven ingredient to control horn flies, face flies and lice on cattle. When used in conjunction with other methods, it can be a very effective solution for resistance management.

VetGun uses precision-engineered CO2 power to project a precise dosage of AiM-L VetCap to treat the animal. It bursts upon impact, allowing the topically applied insecticide to go to work immediately, similar to that of pour-on applications. It’s designed to limit cattle handling and stress, while uniquely applying effective horn fly control.

With this application system, the insecticide can be applied to cattle at a range of 15 to 30 feet, allowing the producer to treat animals from a safe distance. It’s as simple as laying down a lick, hay or feed to create a positive correlation with the dosing process. Most animals show little reaction then return to eating.

“The beauty of the VetGun and AiM-L is you can apply it easily when other methods run out,” said Pennington. “A producer can treat at any time in the pasture when flies reach the economic threshold and only when it’s needed.”


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