BRD-Back to the basics

Great advice for Fall Run

By Tim O’Byrne

Photo by Valerie Johnson

I know…it’s Fall Run…you really don’t have time to have your nose stuck in a Working Ranch magazine right now.  I mean, look around.  There’s a lot to do.  What if somebody caught you?  Ahhh, just tell ‘em you’re getting ‘inspired’ to improve your animal health management practices, or better yet, you’re getting ‘educated’.

It is our duty here at WR to root out dependable sources of valuable information, and one of my favorites is Dr. Jim Sears, Senior Technical Services Veterinarian with Bayer Animal Health.  He’s the kind of veterinarian that I would enjoy shadowing on his comprehensive travels of the beef producing countryside.  Dr. Sears is my kind of guy when it comes to cattle…he makes plenty of field visits, observes, questions, and takes note of what’s actually going on out there.  When I asked him recently to give us some advice on how to get a handle on BRD this fall, I hit the jackpot.

“I would start with the basics and work down from there,” Dr. Sears suggested calmly, his voice reflecting confidence and insight borne of decades of keen industry involvement. “To me, that means being prepared with your facilities, maintaining the herd’s nutritional needs and having a clear strategy on what you plan to do and what you may need to do,” he adds.  

I wondered if he was going to suggest scribbling something down on a surface other than a wore-out leather glove.  Indeed, he did.  “Have those plans ready so you’re not scrambling at the last minute.”

Special care area

Dr. Sears makes a good point about getting the handling facilities squared away (which is probably where you were headed before you got all engrossed in WR magazine).  Every set of working pens has a gate that needs rehung, or a chute that needs greasing, or a drug room that needs cleaning (or a fridge that needs to be replaced…c’mon, thirty years of service is enough, already).  We got to visiting about a strategy for handling a bad BRD break.

“You sometimes end up with more sick calves needing special attention than maybe you were planning for, and it becomes important to have a hospital or special care area ready to go.” Dr Sears considers.

At this point, I asked whether it was a good idea if we should maybe pull the sick calves off the hay meadow, treat them and segregate them on a different water supply and away from the big bunch for a few days in order to minimize disease transmission.

“There’s a lot of good points to that,” he ponders, “but it depends ultimately, and heavily, I believe, upon an assessment of what the needs of the calves are and where the least stressful place for the calf will be.”

So, the debate is 1) take that calf away from his buddies, off the pasture and pen him on a dry diet with others in varying stages of BRD affliction, or 2) treat them as efficiently as possible and get them back to the bunch.  What to do…?  

“I’ve met plenty of producers who, when they identify a case of BRD early, they handle them very slow and stress-free in order to get them doctored,” Dr. Sears shares.  “Then, they turn them right back out with the rest of the calves, which would not accomplish the traditional approach of separation of those calves. You have to guard against short-changing those particular [segregated] calves in too small of a pen, or one that’s not dry enough.”

I’m beginning to lean more towards early pulls (I’m talking ‘the day before they get sick’ early, which is an art form unto itself we intend to discuss at great length in a future issue), low-stress treatment, then getting them back out with their buddies to avoid a rumen upset caused by penning them on dry feed, then kicking them back out on irrigated pasture or fall grass four days later.  Hmmm….lots to consider.

Low Stress for Success

If you’ve been reading WR for any length of time, or if you tune in to our WR Radio Show, you’ll know that we promote Beef Quality Assurance and low-stress cattle (and crew) handling relentlessly.  Dr. Sears agrees wholeheartedly that calm actions should be a cornerstone of a successful management strategy.

“Have your facilities and the processes and interaction with your calves, have them conditioned so that you can get them in and get your hands on them [for treatment] without riling up the whole herd,” Dr. Sears advises.  “Low stress handling is one of those things that’s hard to attach a dollar figure to, but in the big picture it’s hard to deny that when you have that practice in place and those calves are easy to handle, you can easily get them into a facility for treatment without stressing them out too much, it’s just got to be a benefit.”

It’s all coming together for me now.  Dr. Sears is recommending we start with the basics; good facilities, good nutrition, and good low-stress livestock handling.  

“I think a really big principle is to consider where the primary stressors are, or may be, on your cattle and do what you can through husbandry and management practices to reduce, minimize or eliminate those stresses the best you can.”  Hence the recommendation to make a list or a cheat sheet so you don’t forget or be forced to rethink it.

Dosage Dilemma

My next question for Dr. Sears was, “How important is calculating dosage?”

“Very important.  The main thing is to not underdose,” he explains.  “That advice would be true for pretty much every kind of product you might think of, particularly with parasite products, as an example. In this case I would dose for the largest calf in the bunch.”

Temperature Trap

Having spent several years in the feedyard, I had one final question for Dr. Sears while I had him on the line.  I had worked with hospital crewmembers who seemed to be hung up on high temps (in my day it was generally anything over 104.5; probably lower today) as the benchmark for making the decision to treat a pull, but I was not convinced.  I had witnessed several excellent pen checkers who would keep an especially watchful eye out for the low temps that weren’t doing good, the 101’s, rationalizing that their fever had broken and they were downsliding in a dangerous direction.

“You’re correct,” he states.  “That [a high temperature] is at least one objective measurement we can take to try to assess the health status of a calf.  It’s certainly valid.  But you can have calves that have all the other signs – depression, off feed, not feeling good for some reason, maybe breathing hard, but still don’t really have an elevated temperature.  There’s not a standard answer there, you have to be careful.  You can have a calf that is sick with a bacterial pneumonia that has gone past the point of a high temperature.  A lot of it is the clinical assessment that is provided and then just watching the results, the response and hopefully the positive change, and be ready to adjust if you need to.”

I am grateful for dedicated and field-savvy veterinarians like Dr. Sears who give unselfishly to further the advancement of sustainable animal husbandry in this country.  In our short phone conversation he taught me this valuable lesson – it is important to remember that stress or multiple stresses can add up –  that is the root of most disease.  Reduce those stresses instead of allowing them to become cumulative.