Be one step ahead of respiratory disease this fall

Use time and space to separate cattle by days on feed to lower the rate at which epidemics occur.

Ann Hess, Content Director

September 28, 2023

5 Min Read
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While genetics and antibiotics have improved the situation over the years, respiratory disease is still a continuing battle for the cattle industry, says Brett Terhaar, DVM, beef technical consultant with Elanco. And the battle can’t be won from a bottle alone.

One of the things we're dealing with has to do with these calves is that physically, there may be an issue,” says Terhaar. “When we look at a steer that's finishing, it's probably got lung capacity of 12 liters. By comparison, a horse has about 40 liters of lung capacity. So, their lungs are relatively small to their oxygen requirements, and they can get in trouble in a big hurry. Put that on top of the fact that right now we’re finishing cattle at higher and heavier weight.”

It's important to recognize the difference between what a healthy calf looks like and a sick calf, and then to be able to pick out those calves early in the disease process when they're getting sick. If their ears are down, eyes aren't as bright and starting to show some distress in breathing efficiently, Terhaar says treatment is crucial at this point.

“The recovery rate is much higher than if we delay or miss,” Terhaar says. “These calves, where we don't see these clinical signs, we get a calf that moves to a point where it's really obvious we've got severe lung involvement. We've got open mouth breathing and then we have a situation where our treatment response rate may be disappointing.”

He recommends producers walk through freshly weaned calves twice a day and make sure every animal is walking, coming up to the bunk, getting feed and looking normal.

When it comes high risk groups, non-vaccinated cattle that haven't been preconditioned, and are commingled, Terhaar says it’s a dynamic process. Most start out in the susceptible group, then move into the infected group and as the number of days on feed increases, those cattle then get moved into the recovered group.

“This is a process that peaks somewhere in that three-to-four-week post entry into a pen or feedlot or backgrounding situation with high-risk cattle,” Terhaar says. “It looks very different even if half of the cattle have been preconditioned or vaccinated.”

Bailing water or patching holes

That’s why John Groves, DVM, owner of Livestock Veterinary Service in Eldon, Missouri, recommends adding areas of biosecurity and biocontainment. While most producers prefer to pen calves pretty much how they like to feed them, from one end of the facility in order as they buy them, he suggests locating newly purchased calves in pens based on the disease status of the neighboring pens.

“If they filled up one pen per week, you could kind of see that every week the amount of pathogen would kind of amplify over time. That would be true if they did it once every two weeks also,” Groves says.

Instead, he advises producers to draw a map of what their facility looks like and consider how you can use time and space to separate cattle by days on feed to really lower the rate at which epidemics occur in the yard.

“We say feed yards have endemic stability, so the disease can kind of stop and the cattle can get healthy and grow. Stocker operations have endemic instability in which we constantly bring in new cattle, so we always have some epidemic going on,” Groves says. “So, operations that have endemic instability need to be conscious of these tactics.”

Another consideration is pen population size. Groves says if you can change nothing else in your operation except pen size, it's very high leverage in disease dynamics.

“After practicing as long as I have, I now understand some of these more fundamental causes like penning strategy and pen size,” Groves says. “The problem with addressing these issues from a more fundamental point is that these take a big effort and take some time to accomplish. They do yield results, but they're high effort slow and they take a lot of effort.

Also, Groves notes the more time he spends working on short-term fixes such as antimicrobials and vaccines, the less effort he spends working on these fundamental strategies. He refers to it as “shifting the burden.”

To illustrate that concept further, he refers to a boat sinking.

“I think all of us understand a short-term tactic for dealing with the sinking boat, and that's to bail water. But think about it, we also know the long-term strategy to deal with sinking boats and that's to patch the holes in the boat right now,” Groves says. “Oftentimes we're out in the middle of the lake and we don't have time to patch boats. We have to bail water.
If you got a leaky boat, you're eventually going to have to patch that hole.

“So now, when I approach things like respiratory disease in cattle and the tools I use, I often think is this a bailing water strategy or is this a patching a hole in my boat strategy?”

Getting the most out of calves this fall

To be one step ahead of respiratory disease this fall, Terhaar says producers should have a well-executed plan and this includes:

  • Husbandry and management- Ensure calves have comfortable living conditions and use low-stress handling techniques.

  • Solid nutrition- Nutrition continues to be an important aspect in overall health and priming a healthy immune system that may lead to a better vaccine response.

  • Vaccination- Vaccinate against one of the leading causes of profit loss: pathogens that cause BRD and other key diseases.

  • Strategic treatment- Recognize the importance of strategically using trusted anti-infectives to mitigate BRD impact.

  • Accelerate gain- Increase growth efficiency with one of the most profitable management tools available: implanting.

About the Author(s)

Ann Hess

Content Director, National Hog Farmer

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