One Step Ahead of Respiratory Diseases

Finishing Cattle Producers Need to Stay One Step Ahead of Respiratory Diseases

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Proper management of finishing cattle can limit the negative effects of respiratory diseases. (DTN file photo by Elaine Shein)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Feed yard and background operations will benefit from proper management when it comes to recognizing and treating respiratory diseases.

A good management plan should include a well-rounded plan of solid nutrition and good animal husbandry practices. Vaccinations, treatments and accelerated gain implants are also important aspects.

In addition, biosecurity of these operations should be an important disease dynamic consideration.


In an Elanco Animal Health webinar titled "One Step Ahead -- Capturing Added Value in Beef Cattle This Fall Under Favorable Market Conditions," two veterinarians spoke about different management practices producers can employ to avoid respiratory diseases affecting their cattle.

Brett Terhaar, a beef cattle technical consultant for Elanco Animal Health, said respiratory diseases in feedlot cattle continue to be an issue. Producers need to have a well-executed plan to help their operations stay ahead of these diseases.

The first step includes proper husbandry and management, with practices such as comfortable living conditions and low-stress handling techniques, he said.

Another vital practice is to provide solid nutrition for recently weaned calves. Terhaar said a 12% to 14% protein feed should be supplied to these calves.

"Nutrition is an important aspect in overall health and priming a healthy immune system that may lead to a better vaccine response," Terhaar said.

Vaccines and strategic treatment of cattle also play a critical role in effective plans.

Producers should vaccinate against pathogens that cause Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD) and other key diseases. If calves do get sick and must be treated, more than one type of antibiotic should be used.

Terhaar noted that producers should recognize the importance of strategically using trusted anti-infectives to mitigate BRD impact.


The last step in the producers' attack against respiratory diseases is to use accelerated grain implants.

Oklahoma State University Extension, in an article about implants last year, explained that implants -- made of compounds of estrogens, androgens and progestins -- are "a group of products used in the cattle industry that increase the rate and efficiency of growth, both metabolic and economic. Implants contain natural or synthetic compounds that produce physiological responses in the animal similar to natural hormones.

"Implants are typically made of a powder that is compressed into a small pellet. The pellet is placed, or implanted, under the skin on the backside of the animal's ear. Each type or brand of implant has a specific applicator, referred to as an implant gun, which is used to properly administer the implant." (See more in implants at…).

Elanco's Terhaar said using implants in finishing cattle is one of the most profitable tools available to producers today. The implant is placed in a calf's ear. In 100 days, another 20 pounds of gain can be seen. That is a big return on your investment," he noted.

As these operations strive to be as efficient as possible, cattle are being pushed even harder to gain weight. Average finishing cattle in 2000 weighed around 1,150 pounds. In 2010, the number was closer to 1,300 pounds. The average now is about 1,600 pounds.

"Body size has greatly increased, but these cattle still have the same lung capacity," Terhaar said.

Finishing steers only have a lung capacity of 12 liters compared to a horse with 40 liters. With this limited lung capacity, cattle are more susceptible to respiratory types of diseases, he said.


During the webinar, John Groves, a veterinarian who owns Livestock Veterinary Services in Eldon, Missouri, said he pushes his clients to find leverage to improve animal health. His practice focuses on beef cattle and about three-quarters of clients are cattle-feeding operators.

Groves defines leverage as places within a complex system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything. When he first became a vet, he said he focused on treating just one animal at a time. As he evolved as a practitioner, he began thinking of treating livestock in more of a system.

"This increases the ability of the calf to resist disease when it is exposed to and/or infected by a microbe with pathogenic potential," Groves said.

A big part of this leverage for him is biosecurity and biocontainment. Understanding disease dynamics and adjusting the structure of the system to decrease the probability of impactful epidemics is important, he said.

Groves works with his cattle-feeding customers and runs computer simulations to explain how disease outbreaks can occur.

Using different colors (white for non-immune cattle, red for infected cattle and yellow for recovered or immune cattle), the simulation shows how fast disease can spread in new cattle to a feeding operation. In as little as seven days, infectious (red) cattle can be seen in many different pens in his model.


Groves suggested producers develop rational tactics for how long it takes to populate pens and where new cattle should go. While it may seem counterintuitive to keep newly arrived cattle away from cattle that have been in pens the longest, his data shows the action can lead to fewer disease issues.

Pen size also goes a long way in helping control disease. One of Groves' simulations has 200 calves in different pen sizes. The fewer calves in a pen, the lower the number of calves exposed to disease, he said.

He pointed to recent data from Texas A&M Extension researchers. The research showed zero percent mortality among calves in the study.

Groves said he couldn't understand why no calves in the study died, even though a high percentage were treated for various diseases. One of the researchers told him the size of the pens in the study was only 16 head.

"Change the pen size and this can be some leverage for producers," he said.

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Russ Quinn