High-risk calves

Is BRD a battle we’ll never win?

Bovine respiratory disease has long been a plague on feedyards. Here’s why that likely will never change.

BRD, or bovine respiratory disease, has been a plague for feedyards probably for about as long as there have been feedyards. You’ll often see it referred to as BRDC, or bovine respiratory disease complex, because it’s not just one disease. It’s a myriad of things, all of which can cause big problems for cattle health and welfare.

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service reports that more than 21% of cattle are affected by BRD. Previous estimates of the annual economic losses due to death, reduced feed efficiency and treatment costs are between $800 and $900 million.

For anyone who’s been around feedyards, that’s not news. I bring it up because BRD is a problem the beef business hasn’t been able to solve. We have the finest vaccines and medicines available to treat BRD, but feedyards just can’t seem to get on top of it.

READ: Controlling BRD begins at the ranch

I also bring it up because I read a research report that looked at what the effect might be of new technologies and management strategies that could result in lower BRD prevalence. Bottom line, the study speculated that a reduction in BRD cases would result in an increase in the beef supply due to lower morbidity and mortality, and an increase in feed costs due to more healthy cattle eating a full ration. On the upside, consumers would benefit from greater supplies of beef and lower costs.

Clearly, any reduction in BRD would be a benefit to feedyards in reduced treatment costs and greater feed efficiency, not to mention animal welfare. The extent to which that will impact the cattle and beef markets can be debated ad nauseum. That’s not my intent here. You can read the research report and come to your own conclusions.

My thought is that we’ll never make any significant improvement in battling BRD, regardless of new technologies or management practices that may come down the road. There are simply too many unvaccinated calves that are weaned on exhaust fumes. BRD may be a feedyard problem, but how calves are managed, or more accurately mismanaged, prior to arriving at the feedlot sets them up for failure or success.

READ: Cow-Calf health: Here's what you can do now

And the people who produce and sell what we call high-risk calves likely won’t adopt new technologies or management practices. Why? Because there are lots of reasons to raise cattle, and profit isn’t always the motive. If it were, those producers would have already received a strong price signal to improve their management.

According to Ed Czerwien, who produces three audio market reports each week for BEEF that you can find on our website, there has long been a price distinction for preconditioned calves. The caveat? There have to be enough to make a load lot. Selling preconditioned calves in numbers less than a truckload may get you a premium, but not much if any.

So unless a producer who has somewhere around the national average of 40 cows, even if doing everything right, sells through some sort of a cooperative or program where small lots can be comingled into load lots, he or she isn’t going to get rewarded for the extra work and costs associated with preconditioning. And some large ranches aren’t set up to precondition or background their calves.

Yet those market signals have been around for a long time. Before Czerwien became a market reporter for USDA’s Market News division, he ran the sale barn at St. Joseph. Mo. At certain times of the year, he would run special sales for weaned and vaccinated calves that had written documentation. Those calves brought a big premium, he says.

READ: Is your herd health program as good as everybody else's?

More recently, he did a study using the data from Superior video auction to see what determined differences in prices. That was quite a few years ago and even then, there was a bigger difference between the price for preconditioned versus unweaned, nonvaccinated calves, at around $10 per cwt., than between steers and heifers. For a 5-weight steer, that’s a difference of $50 a head.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard of the price difference between preconditioned and high-risk calves being as much as $25 per cwt. But even at $10, that’s enough to make adhering to BQA principles well worth the work and cost.

I could go on, but I won’t. The bottom line for BRD is this: until we find a way to reach those producers who don’t vaccinate their calves prior to weaning to change their management philosophy, we’ll never make much of a dent in reducing the incidence of BRD. I’ve been scratching my head over that one for all of the nearly 40 years I’ve been in this business and I haven’t come up with any good ideas. How about you?

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