Battling Against BRD with a United Front

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Article | 03.01.2021
Marissa Munson, Technical Services Veterinarian, Cattle 

Imagine for a moment, you are on a youth beef quiz bowl team with questions focused on testing your knowledge of cattle health.

It's the final round, and the question you are presented with is this: 

The number 1 health issue affecting calves during their first few months of life is scours/diarrhea. But after 3 months old, what disease is the biggest threat to calves' health for the remainder of their lifetime?

If you answered bovine respiratory disease (BRD), you've earned a 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 BRD is stealing more than a billion dollars annually in calf performance and end beef product, the solutions to addressing this disease remain challenging.

Why? Many of the factor causing BRD are the result of 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 feedyard. Additionally, there are genetics that may predispose the calf to BRD, swings in weather and changes in nutrition that calves experience as they move from farm or ranch to market auction to feedyard. 

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

But looking ahead, as an industry 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? I believe it begins with a mindset shift among cow-calf producers. Take a moment to think about the genetics you use for your herd. Most likely, you 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 looked at as an investment. 

Taking that perspective one step further, cow-calf producers can view preconditioning and vaccination programs as an investment to help prevent BRD 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 performance of the calf are how we as an industry can successfully mitigate BRD. When applied prior to stress periods, a vaccine can be an effective tool to raise the threshold of disease susceptibility - not only for the animal but the herd as a whole. So when the animal or herd is exposed to the same pathogen again, it doesn't overcome their 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 are receiving the best return on investment. Among the considerations are: 

  • 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. So 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 fits your operation with regard to cattle, management, facilities and labor. As examples, there are killed bacterin and toxoid vaccines and also modified-live viral vaccines, which may only require a single dose. Keep in mind, new and improved vaccines are continually being introduced to the marketplace. Just as we upgrade our phones to new technology from time to time, we should explore the new vaccine technology available and what it offers as well. 
  • 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 we have many effective tools available and these tools can be tailored to each operation's individual needs. 

As a final points, 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 end, disease prevention begins there and benefits the entire industry. 


This article was written for Progressive Cattle, published online in July 2020.
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