Battle Against BRD With a United Front

Imagine that you are on a youth quiz bowl team with questions focused on testing your knowledge of cattle health.

It’s the final round, and you are asked this question: The number 1 health issue affecting calves during their first few months of life is scours/ diarrhea – but after about three months old, what disease is the biggest threat to calves’ health their remaining lifetime?

If you answered bovine respiratory disease (BRD), you’ve earned the winning point for your team. Considered the most economically costly disease affecting the U.S. beef cattle industry, BRD encompasses any infections of calves’ upper and lower respiratory tract and lungs. The disease results in symptoms ranging from fever and reduced weight gain to coughing, pneumonia, and death.

While the beef industry recognizes that BRD is stealing more than a billion dollars annually in calf performance and end beef products, the solutions to this disease remain challenging.

Why? Many factors causing BRD result from pathogens and environmental conditions calves are exposed to. There’s a cumulative effect on the calf through the marketing chain, including physical and social stress and immune challenges from weaning, commingling, shipping, and potentially being commingled again upon arrival at a feed yard. Additionally, there are genetics that may predispose the calf to BRD, and swings in weather and changes in nutrition that calves  experience as they move from farm or ranch to market auction to feed yard.

Because of the complexities of the disease and the beef industry, it has been difficult to curb BRD. In fact, despite the many preventive interventions, diagnostics, and treatments available, morbidity and mortality rates reaching as high as 50% in some groups of feedlot calves means we have not seen significant improvements in BRD incidence in the beef industry over the past decade.

But as we focus on continuous improvement and future sustainability, the beef industry has a significant opportunity to move the needle to address BRD control.

Prevention is key
How can we flip the script on BRD? It begins with a mindset shift among cow-calf producers. Take a moment to think about the genetics you use for your herd. You most likely strive to invest in the best genetics you can afford. Likewise, when it comes to feeding your cow herd and preparing for calving season, your nutrition program and developing a healthy cow to be a mama is also considered an investment.

Taking that perspective further, cow-calf producers can view preconditioning and vaccination programs as calves move through the weaning, marketing, shipping, and feedlot phase.

Just as tractors and fencing are investments on your farm or ranch, vaccination programs are also an investment for the overall beef industry because they contribute to lifelong health and productivity. The investment in animal well-being and overall calf performance is how we, as an industry, can successfully mitigate BRD. When applied before stress periods, a vaccine can be an effective tool to raise the threshold of disease susceptibility for the animal and the whole herd. So when the animal or herd is exposed to the same pathogen again, it doesn’t overcome its immune system the second time around.

Best practices
In addition to committing to a vaccination protocol, there are some recommended best practices to evaluate with your local veterinarian to ensure you receive the best return on investment. Among the considerations:
• Vaccination timing. A vaccine is most effective before the disease challenge arises. For example, waiting to get a flu shot until you have the flu doesn’t work. The same can be said with cattle. Determine when vaccinations can be done before weaning, or shipping stressors occur.
• Find the right product fit for your operation. There are several different BRD vaccines on the market. Evaluate which product offers the technology that matches your operation concerning cattle, management, facilities, and labor. For example, there are killed bacterin and toxoid vaccines and modified-live viral vaccines, which may only require a single dose. Remember, new and improved vaccines are continually being introduced to the marketplace. Just as we upgrade our phones to new technology occasionally, we should explore the new vaccine technology available and what it offers.
• Understand and follow label claims. Incorrect label use and mismanagement can overwhelm an effective vaccine. Ask your veterinarian to help interpret and apply label information.

While there is no “cookie-cutter” approach to address BRD, the good news is that we have many effective tools available that can be tailored to each operation’s needs.

As a final point, throughout this Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve heard the phrase, “We’re all in this together.” That’s true in life – and it’s true in the beef industry. We must think more holistically and recognize that our industry begins with the cow-calf producer. To that, disease prevention begins there and benefits the entire industry.