From the September issue of Bovine Veterinarian.

The modern beef industry has come a long way in understanding the array of pathogens involved in bovine respiratory disease syndrome (BRDS), along with the list of environmental and genetic factors associated with the disease, and in developing better vaccines, treatments, diagnostics and management practices. But as several presenters at the recent 2014 BRDS Symposium pointed out, we can and must do better.

Back to basics on BRDDuring the two-day symposium, several points became clear. One is that in spite of advancements, we have not seen any significant reduction in the incidence of BRD in feedlots or dairy-calf operations. The reasons behind the ongoing trend are not entirely clear, but probably include more intensive production, genetic susceptibility possibly encouraged by selection pressure on other production traits and a marketing system, particularly for beef calves, that can include a risky combination of pathogen exposure and stress.

Throughout the conference, presenters outlined research into new technologies and management systems for combating the disease. These include genomic-enhanced selection, pharmacogenomics for development of targeted vaccines and treatments and new diagnostic tools including rapid laboratory analysis, on-farm respiratory scoring, electronic behavior monitoring and the Whisper electronic stethoscope system.

While these new approaches hold great promise, it also became clear the industry could significantly reduce losses associated with BRDS by getting back to the basics, and veterinarians can play a key role in helping clients adopt time-tested practices. Good nutrition for the pregnant cow and plenty of high-quality colostrum for the newborn calf go a long way toward ensuring long-term immunity. Low-stress stockmanship practices help minimize a calf’s vulnerability to disease, and can build trust that allows calves to reveal, rather than hide early signs of morbidity.

Numerous studies have shown a sound preconditioning program incorporating nutrition, planned vaccination protocols and on-farm weaning for at least 30 days – 45 days is better – can dramatically reduce risk of BRDS in calves shipped to feedyards or stocker operations.

So why are more backgrouding operations and feedlots not stocked full of low-risk preconditioned calves? The answer involves perceptions and economics, says Purdue University veterinarian Mark Hilton. Some cow-calf producers still see preconditioning as a cost, and have not recognized the potential economic returns generated by efficient weight gains and heavier market weights in addition to per-pound premiums. On the buyers’ side, some cattle feeders continue to look for calves they perceive as a bargain, since they’ve sometimes profited by purchasing high-risk calves, straightening them out the best they can and accepting a high disease incidence as a cost of doing business.  

Hilton believes some portion of the backgrounding and feeding sector will continue to take chances on cheaper, high-risk calves if they are available, so the focus should be on educating cow-calf producers on the benefits of early prevention and preconditioning. He suggests that instead of just discussing the buyer-dependent “preconditioning bonus,” veterinarians and the industry should highlight the profit from additional pounds sold and returns per hour for the cow-calf enterprise, which are seller-dependent. In our beef-cattle production system, animal health begins at the cow-calf level, and that, perhaps, is where the veterinarians can have the greatest impact on BRD.

See more on BRD, along with features on PCR testing for parasite diagnosis, lameness in beef and dairy cattle, FMD action steps and on-farm euthanasia in the September digital edition of Bovine Veterinarian