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Sharing Success in Managing Bovine Respiratory Disease

BRD in beef cattle is a fact of life — but it can be managed. A veterinarian, a stocker and a feedlot manager share their unique perspectives about what works.

Involved with cattle since he was a boy, Tanner Stucky says he keeps an open mind in this business because there’s always more to learn. “Everyone you meet can usually teach you something different,” said Stucky, yard manager at Tiffany Cattle Company near Herington, Kansas.

To help expand successful management practices, three longtime industry professionals sat and visited with the Zoetis beef team and shared how they manage bovine respiratory disease (BRD) — what works, what helps it work better, what makes the difference in their corner of the beef cattle business and how they pull it all together.

Though each man has a different specialty in the industry, there is one thing they all have experience with — keeping cattle healthy.

For this veterinarian, the key is communication
David Bechtol, DVM, owner of Palo Duro Consulting, Research & Feedlot, Canyon, Texas, cites talking through all the issues with a producer as the biggest key to managing BRD. “We may switch to a different product at different times of the year or for different types of cattle. That’s where communication comes in.”

Bechtol says the goal is good efficacy in that initial treatment. But if that animal doesn’t respond the first time, you still want good efficacy with the second antibiotic, too, he explains.

A dialog is important, and relaying feedback on a treatment helps make decisions for the future. “You have to be able to talk through all the issues,” Bechtol says. “When I work with a producer, he needs to understand that we’re not going to achieve a 100% response on that initial treatment — but if we can get at least 75% to 80% efficiency, we have the right treatment program.”

Record keeping is also key for this veterinarian. “You need to have good records to evaluate your program and determine if you’re getting the response you should be.”

Bechtol also says a successfully managing BRD doesn’t always mean metaphylaxis treatment is necessary. “If you have a good prevention program on incoming cattle, and a good cowboy crew, a lot of times you don’t need a metaphylactic treatment on all cattle. When the producer and veterinarian work as true partners, it’s easier to identify what’s necessary and what isn’t and make changes as needed.”

The power of protocols at the feedlot
Diligent adherence to protocols has helped avoid some big wrecks and recurring problems at the feedlot, said Tanner Stucky, yard manager at Tiffany Cattle Company near Herington, Kansas. Sure, problems arise here and there with such a large number of animals, but the biggest difference for making improvements comes from discipline in setting protocols.

“It has helped us avoid some big wrecks and problems we kept seeing again and again, Stucky explains. “It’s a successful day when you go home and you haven’t had any big wrecks and everyone is still happy with each other.”

He is quick to say that, like any operation, they have problems here or there. When you’re dealing with that many animals at once, you’re going to have a problem at some point in time, Stucky says. “But the biggest difference I have to say that has helped us improve has been sticking to our protocols.”

In his experience, an operation should stick to protocols that have been set for at least six months, and then review them.

Posting animals is also key to Stucky’s management process when it comes to death loss.

“One of our biggest tools is to post animals you lose and figure out why you are losing them. If you don’t figure out why you’re losing them, then you won’t know how to attack the problem and fix it,” he says. Sometimes it’s something you could have never fixed, but it could at least provide insights to help avoid a pen problem or losing more cattle in the future.

Knowing about the history of incoming cattle and helping owners with prevention health protocols is also key.

“Working with our customers at home before they bring their cattle to us has helped. So, they will get all their shots a couple of weeks before animals even come to us. Again, it all comes back to relationships. If everyone is communicating what they are doing on both sides, this can be huge.”

He hopes the industry can all inform those who raise cattle how important vaccinations are from the start. It all starts at home when that calf hits the ground and how good you’ve been taking care of that cow, he says. He also hopes more people start BVD-PI-testing calves and eliminating some of those factors and problems.

“These are the things that help make our jobs a little easier on the feedlot.”

Crunching the numbers in stocker country
“We are aggressive to find data and evaluate data. BRD health challenges are unfortunately getting worse. It’s important to be in tune to what’s going on,” said Bill Gallery, co-owner at Gallery Ranch near Dewey, Oklahoma.

Gallery manages the operation with his brother Tom, and dad, Dan. Their location and operation, which receives cattle from across the country, requires managing and minimizing disease challenges daily, specifically BRD. Like many stocker operations, the ranch buys commingled sale barn cattle. When cattle get off the truck, Gallery Ranch often doesn’t know the distance they’ve traveled or their health histories.

“This is like putting a bunch of preschoolers together in daycare,” Gallery said. “There is a good chance some are going to get sick. There is no way around it.”

Data and research informs the way Gallery Ranch operates. Gallery said they keep records going back to the 1980s that help them make strategic management decisions. “You can’t evaluate anything on just a gut feeling,” he said. “With records, we can see the success rates on certain products.”

Gallery Ranch works closely with its consulting veterinarian out of Oklahoma City.

“He has a lot of feedyard exposure, so he sees a lot of numbers,” Gallery said. “He’s also well-connected in the industry, so he brings a lot to the table for us.”

Conducting contract research also has helped keep the ranch in the loop for what’s going on and what products might be working better year to year.

“We like to do one or two research trials per year,” Gallery said. “We’ll set protocols with our veterinarian and work with animal health company technical services veterinarians, so we can keep everything as fair as possible.”

Like Stucky, Gallery has consistent protocols. “We have made sure we have the facilities and management to take care of and handle these high-risk commingled cattle,” Gallery said.

The operation has several grass traps, and each load of cattle they receive has its own trap and water. Cattle stay in their grass trap for about 30 to 40 days. Any sick cattle are pulled and treated and then go back to their original group after treatment.

“We also BVD-PI [bovine viral diarrhea virus persistent infection] test all cattle on arrival,” Gallery said. “And we get the PIs out of the pen as soon as we get the phone call from the lab, which is at least within 48 hours, but usually within 24 hours. This has made a huge difference.”

He said they’ve seen how PIs can contribute to more wrecks — if PIs have been in a pen an extra day or if they compare a load of cattle that had PIs present to another load of cattle with no PIs. So, it’s crucial to get PIs out of the pens quickly.

Longer-acting antibiotics have been one way for the ranch to cut down on handling and its impact because, as Gallery says, every time a steer needs to come up to the pens, that’s a day he’s probably not going to gain any weight.

“There is lost performance having to gather cattle and run them through the chute more often,” Gallery said. “There also is risk of injury to cattle or the labor involved with more frequent handling.”

It also saves the operation valuable time.

“The more expensive antibiotics are worth it,” Gallery said. “Not only is it going to be easier on the animal because you’re more likely to only have to give the antibiotic once, but it is easier on us because we don’t have to go get the animal again and give him another shot in three days. We squeak by on a skeletal crew, so anything we can do to save time, the better.”

Health challenges are ongoing and will always continue to be a moving target in this industry.

“There is a lot of uncertainty in what we do, and BRD is becoming costlier and more challenging all the time,” Gallery said. “Yes, it’s a challenge every day, but the intensity of the stocker business is what I enjoy most.”

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