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Dealing with PI calves

Persistent infection (PI) of bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) has received a great deal of attention in recent years. BEEF has featured several articles on

Persistent infection (PI) of bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) has received a great deal of attention in recent years. BEEF has featured several articles on the subject in the past year. And more and more feedyards, stockers and cow-calf producers are testing for PI.

But what should be done with cattle testing positive for PI? The Academy of Veterinary Consultants and the American Association of Bovine Practitioners each have similar position statements, essentially stating it's unethical to sell such known disease-carrying animals without disclosing their status.

Unfortunately, position statements are just that — they state a position, but don't offer much guidance. There are currently no governmental regulations on this issue, and since BVD isn't zoonotic, there probably won't be.

Some options

Stocker and feedlot operators struggle with how to deal with PI cattle. The fact that $400-$700 was invested in that animal is usually still fresh in the purchaser's mind. There are several options:

  • Euthanize the animal.

  • Sell the animal to slaughter as soon as withdrawal times are satisfied.

  • Feed the animal to a slaughter weight in a quarantine pen.

  • Send the animal to a feedlot that feeds PI animals.

One of my colleagues says the solution is simple: Find the PI animal and euthanize it. There's some merit to this approach, as it can be shown that it's cost-effective, but I question it for two reasons. First, if quarantined, I don't think the PI animal is totally valueless. Second, the animal can still produce wholesome beef and I took an oath to conserve livestock resources.

Meanwhile, selling the animal to slaughter allows the owner to realize at least a little return on investment, though frequently that return is 25% or less of the initial investment.

Feeding the animal to slaughter weight in a quarantine pen could be the most cost-effective option at this time. Many PI animals actually gain well, but death loss can be quite high — 30% is very typical in a quarantine pen, sometimes reaching as high as 50%.

Another issue is that smaller operations may have only one or two animals to quarantine, making this a less attractive option.

There's a great deal of interest in a PI feedlot, and I've visited with several veterinarians searching for one. However, if a feedyard was to buy every PI animal in the yard, the high level of risk would reduce the purchase price to the point where other options would become just as attractive.

And if the feedyard was to feed the PIs on a custom basis, it may have a couple hundred different owners in one pen — a bookkeeping nightmare. Also, the logistics of getting the PI animals to the PI feedyard would be a huge challenge, as a load of these cattle would most likely have to be put together one to five head at a time.

Many veterinarians are concerned that unless better options for disposing of PI cattle are devised, some producers may cease testing. Thach Winslow of Blacksburg, VA, is one such veterinarian.

Winslow says his clients feel there's value in these animals, but don't have the facilities to quarantine them for long periods of time. Winslow is convinced some people will sell their PI animals without disclosure, eventually leading to a situation where any single calf entering the sale ring with a notch in its ear will be severely discounted out of fear he's PI.

A moral question

I sincerely hope producers resist the temptation to sell PIs without disclosure. But I've heard many arguments attempting to justify the practice, such as, “Well, I got stuck with him, what's wrong with sticking someone else with him?”

Personally, I can't morally justify selling a PI without disclosure. The animal is being culled because it is inferior. On the open market, there's no control over where that animal could go. What if it went to a seedstock operation as an embryo transfer recipient or a gomer bull, for instance? The results could be devastating, and may even result in legal action.

The industry needs to find another solution. The movement to battle PI of BVD is gaining momentum, and the disposition of such animals shouldn't be the issue that stops it. Let's get our heads together and work toward a constructive resolution.

Dave Sjeklocha, DVM, is a feedlot consultant at the Haskell County Animal Hospital in Sublette, KS. He can be reached at 620-675-8180 or

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