In hard economic times, cutting corners can become a rule instead of an exception. As the cattle industry faces rapidly rising input costs, producers should make every dollar count. According to a recent study from Iowa State University, one place producers cannot afford to cut is in their parasite control program. The study concluded that parasite control is the most economically important practice in beef production.

Iowa State researchers gathered the results of more than 170 previous studies and evaluated the various pharmaceutical technologies available to the cow-calf, stocker and feedyard segments, calculating their economic importance and their return on investment.

At the cow-calf level, the study showed that dewormers affect weaning rates and weights more than any other technology a producer can employ. Cow-calf producers who used parasite control saw an advantage of 23% in weaning rates and 4% in weaning weights. Parasite control was almost six times more important to a cow-calf producer’s breakeven cost than growth-promoting implants (the second-most economically significant choice). Eliminating parasite control practices would negatively affect breakeven selling prices by 34%, which would mean an added cost of $165 per head.

These numbers are a sum of production losses for cow-calf producers. Parasites cause all kinds of costly consequences for their hosts — added stress, lost production, decreased immune response and reduced fertility, to name a few.

“All of that can happen while parasite problems remain at a subclinical level, while cattle appear healthy,” says James Hawkins, parasitologist and consultant for Merial Veterinary Services. “That’s how many producers lose their profits to parasites without realizing it.”

The study showed that dewormers were also the most important choice for stocker operators, affecting average daily gain (ADG) by almost 18%. In that segment, failure to control parasites would increase breakeven prices by $20.77 a head.
In the feedyard, parasite control remained critical. There, dewormers increased ADG by 5.6% and reduced feed to gain by 3.9%. Eliminating their use would increase the per-head cost of production by $22.16.

“That’s more than enough to turn a profitable feeder into a loss,” Hawkins says. “The return on investment that parasite control offers for every segment of the beef industry is indisputable.”

Across segments, over the life of the animal, the study found that the impact of eliminating dewormers would be a 19% change in breakeven prices — or a cost of almost $190 on each head the industry produces.

But not all parasite control products are created equal, Hawkins says. For example, they don’t all control liver flukes, which are among the most costly of all cattle parasites. Flukes are a spreading problem; now endemic in 26 states, they are gaining new ground as cattle, hay and wildlife move around the country, Hawkins says. The National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) concluded that flukes are one of the top 10 quality issues of the beef industry.

“With liver flukes, prevention is critical because the only reliable way to diagnose a fluke infection is to observe an animal’s liver during a post-mortem exam — long after the economic damage has been done,” Hawkins says. Liver flukes not only have a negative effect on rates of gain, they affect reproduction too, causing decreased pregnancy rates and lower bull fertility.

As feed and other costs continue to rise, parasite control becomes even more important to profitable beef production and to producers trying to protect their investments.