Shipping fever, or bovine respiratory disease, costs the cattle industry up to $900 million annually. But what does that number really mean to producers? “It’s hard for me to appreciate $900 million worth of losses spread out across the whole industry,” said Dr. Mike Nichols, DVM, of Boehringer Ingelheim. “But it’s a cost that impacts every operation—it hits profitability, competitiveness and sustainability.”
According to Dr. Dan Stafford, DVM, feedyard and stocker consultant in south-central Texas, BRD is the No. 1 cause of disease for his producers. “It’s almost impossible to put a number to how each animal is impacted adversely,” he stated. “Initially, when producers think about costs associated with BRD, they think about up-front, tangible losses like mortality or how much it costs to give antibiotics, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” Nichols and Stafford agree that the most costly aspect of BRD is often the long-term losses:
1. Chronic cases. A chronic case is an animal that survives BRD, but doesn’t respond well to treatment and becomes chronically ill. A chronic animal will never be able to catch up to healthy pen mates or reach peak performance.
2. Reduced feed efficiency and lower carcass value. Infected animals are going to take longer to reach target weights, and are going to have lower carcass values at market.
3. Employee morale and turnover. “When animals are healthy, they’re enjoyable for employees to care for, but when we have significant BRD issues, it’s really tough on employee morale,” said Stafford. “It can and does contribute to employee turnover, which of course is a big cost.”
4. Psychological health. “There’s an emotional aspect of BRD that we don’t often talk about,” added Nichols. “It’s demoralizing to constantly treat BRD. I’ve seen it become a major driver for producers to make a change, even more so than financial reasons.”
Managing treatment costs
“The most common complaint I get from clients about BRD is that we continue to get more expensive, new-and-improved antibiotics, but it feels like we’re still getting the same results,” said Stafford. “I try to remind producers that to manage the cost of antibiotics and BRD, we need to make sure that we’ve got a well-thought-out treatment protocol in place.”
* Recognize the signs of disease early. “Identifying signs and diagnosing BRD early, almost when the animal is on the verge of getting sick, is when you’ll get the best response out of any antibiotic,” Stafford explained.
* Find the specific cause of BRD. Discovering the specific BRD-causing pathogen can determine whether producers are implementing the correct vaccination and treatment protocols. Diagnostics could include conducting a necropsy, or performing a deep nasopharyngeal swab on live calves, with the guidance of a veterinarian.
• Use a long-lasting, fast-acting antibiotic. “We want our antibiotic to have a quick response so we can get the animal back with its pen mates,” noted Stafford. “We also want long-lasting antibiotics when possible, so we don’t have to bring animals back up and handle them several times.”
• Follow the label. “Some producers will treat an animal, come back the next day, and want to treat again if the animal isn’t looking better,” said Nichols. “The producer’s intentions are good. They see the animal is still suffering and want to help. However, if the product label states it is effective for 10 days, we need to refrain from re-treating too quickly and give the animal sufficient time to respond to the antibiotic. Giving another dose in that situation increases cost without increasing effectiveness.”
Following the label is also an important part of judicious antibiotic use. “We want to use these antibiotics thoughtfully, so we can use them for years to come,” emphasized Stafford.
• Keep records. A basic set of records that track the animal, health problem, treatment day and product can help determine whether a treatment protocol is working. Review these records with a veterinarian to evaluate whether a different antibiotic needs to be chosen, or if more attention needs to be paid to earlier diagnosis and more aggressive treatment.
• Use your veterinarian. “There are still a lot of producers who don’t work with a veterinarian,” said Stafford. “Instead, they rely on advice from relatives or neighbors, and often wind up with misinformation. They’ll be using products that they don’t fully understand how to use correctly, and end up spending time and money on the wrong treatment.”
Prevention offers the most value
Nichols and Stafford stress that the best way to manage the cost of BRD is through prevention. Every herd is going to be different, so work with a nutritionist and veterinarian to implement the following elements:
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“Unknown vaccination history is the biggest obstacle my feedyard producers face when dealing with BRD,” said Stafford. “Ideally, my clients wouldn’t buy an animal unless it already had at least one round, if not two rounds, of vaccinations. My dream scenario would be for them to buy cattle that are vaccinated once at branding, and again at weaning before shipment. Then, when cattle arrive at the feedyard, they’d get a booster. If all my producers did that, it might put me out of work.”
Nutrition is a major management component in avoiding BRD wrecks. “When we optimize a nutrition program, we are also going to optimize immune function and help prevent disease,” explained Nichols. “Animals on a proper nutrition program are also going to respond better to vaccinations and to treatments if they do get sick.”
A solid nutrition program includes providing plenty of fresh, clean water, as well as giving animals a balanced ration at consistent times with adequate protein, energy and trace minerals.
3. Stress management
“I think we’ve made very efficient systems for handling and moving cattle, but as we’ve done that, we’ve put extra stress on animals,” remarked Stafford. “Cattle are now expected to move hundreds of miles in the blink of an eye, meet new pen mates and face all the other stressors that go along with moving.” Stress can compromise an animal’s immune system and make them susceptible to disease. Producers can manage stress in these ways:
• Shield cattle from harsh weather conditions, and give them plenty of bunk space.
• Avoid overcrowding, as it causes stress and promotes the spread of disease.
• Practice low-stress handling to ensure the moving process goes smoothly for both producers and the cattle. Low-stress handling techniques include presenting a calm disposition, avoiding loud noises, reducing the use of cattle prods, and removing visual distractions.
• Administering a metaphylaxis treatment, or a group antibiotic treatment, for at-risk animals in a timely manner can help reduce morbidity and mortality on beef operations. “Your antibiotic should protect against all four of the BRD–causing pathogens, Mannheimia haemolytica, Pasteurella multocida, Histophilus somni and Mycoplasma bovis,” Nichols pointed out.
A BRD success story
“I have a feedyard client who has been struggling with increasing mortality, morbidity and medicine costs associated with BRD for the last 10 years,” said Stafford. “It was getting to where they couldn’t bear it anymore, so they tried two approaches. First, they sought out and bought more cattle from a determined origin. The animals were not commingled and were not run through a sale barn. These animals came in less stressed and had a vaccination history.
“Second, they reduced the number of cattle that they were willing to take in at any one time, especially during the big fall runs. The manager always said, ‘I can control BRD. All I have to do is close the front gate.’ So, they went from processing 800 new animals a week to 250. They were no longer overloading their system, and they saw incredible results. The cowboy crew could finally catch their breath, and they were able to do a better job. That operation wound up making more money—they saved eight- to 10-fold on medicine, and had a significant reduction in mortality and morbidity.”
Bringing back the art of animal husbandry
“Animal husbandry is an art, and, in some cases, it’s the missing piece for the very best care we can give animals,” said Nichols. “Not the difference between bad care and good care, but the very best care.”
“We need to put ourselves in the situation of the animal,“ agreed Stafford. “What do you want? You want clean water, something good to eat, protection from the elements, and to be comfortable. Good animal husbandry is about focusing on those basics, while leveraging the antibiotics we have available. That’s what’s really going to save us on BRD costs in the long run.”