SUTTON, Neb.- Contrary to some suggestions that the health of the nation's beef calf crop may have declined over the past decade, Sutton, Neb., veterinarian Dr. Michael Cox, DVM, believes calf health is better in his region now than it has been in recent memory. Market demand, better health information at the ranch level, improved calf and cow vaccination, and focused cowherd nutrition have all contributed to healthier calves in his practice area of southern Nebraska, says this partner in Sutton Veterinary Clinic.
Dr. Cox, winner of this year's Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica "Unlock Your Potential" contest, suggests cow/calf producers focus on these three specific management basics to unlock the health potential of their calf crop:
1. Precondition for immunity
"The days when you could aim just to sell your calves on the highest market day possible, without any regard to how they were going to perform for the next guy in the chain, those days are gone," Dr. Cox says. "Today, the guy at the feedyard who buys calves of risky or unknown status, takes them home and incurs a 20 or 30 percent treatment cost on them-plus loses 3 or 4 percent of them-not only is he not going to buy calves like that the next season, he may not be in business to buy them the next season."
That reality has made effective preconditioning nearly standard in his area, Dr. Cox says, where he estimates at least 70 percent of cow/calf producers now routinely do it.
"Calf buyers and sellers still avoid throwing around the 'P' and 'D' words (Premiums and Discounts) when it comes to bidding calves based on preconditioning status, but the fact is the market has built its own accounting for calf health into the pricing mechanism." Most of Sutton Veterinary Clinic's clients' calves are born in February through April and then sold through salebarns in December or January as backgrounded calves heading into confinement. And like most others in the country, those feedyards have been made particularly aware of losses to disease by this year's skyrocketing feed costs and tight margins.
"We're in a totally different climate this year," says Dr. Cox. "You could be a low-cost producer in the past and squeeze by, but there's so little room left for error in today's economic climate that buyers have built their higher expectations for calf health into the system. It's not a question of if to precondition anymore, but of when to precondition."
For his typical cow/calf client, Dr. Cox recommends a modified-live viral vaccine like Express® 5 at spring branding, or at about 60 days of age. That's followed by a modified-live viral/bacterial pneumonia combination vaccine like Express® 5 PHM, along with a 7-way Clostridial at 30 days before weaning. Finally, calves get a booster of Express 5 PHM at weaning, after which they go into 60 to 90 days of backgrounding to acclimate them to confinement feeding.
"With the proven safety of today's modified-lives and what we now know about maternal antibody interference, combined with a better understanding of the effects of BVD on young calves, there's just no good reason producers shouldn't be vaccinating nursing calves with an effective modified-live BVD component. Giving the vaccination to calves while they're still on the cow and less stressed gives you such a better response that by the time these calves get shipped, commingled and wrestled around these sale barns, their immune systems are highly developed enough to do the job they're meant to do."
2. Shift cowherd vaccination to the pre-breeding window
Like so many cowherd practices, Dr. Cox believes, the traditional practice of vaccinating cows at preg-check evolved because it best fit the management and labor constraints most ranches faced. But that timing worked against the producer from a biological standpoint, leaving cows vulnerable to disease during gestation, sometimes in spite of the best vaccines. The ideal timing to vaccinate the cowherd from the standpoint of building the immune system is as close to breeding as possible without causing problems by vaccinating too close to bull turnout. In Dr. Cox's philosophy, that's 30 days before the season starts.
"In the cow/calf sector, that's probably the second most important impact a producer can make on the health of his calves after effectively immunizing them through preconditioning: Take care of those cows."
To accomplish that task, Dr. Cox recommends preparing tomorrow's cows for a lifetime of herd immunity by vaccinating all replacement heifers twice before breeding-at around six and four weeks before turnout-using a modified-live viral combination like Express 10 FP. Mature cows then receive a pre-breeding booster with the same Express FP, which includes a component to protect the unborn calf against BVD infection that can result in persistently infected calves. Persistently infected calves often act as silent carriers of the disease in cow/calf operations, serving as a source of infection both for the home ranch as well as the feedlot, when those calves are shipped to confinement and begin shedding the virus under stress.
"The issue of persistent BVD has been a real driving force in converting a lot of producers to a more effective vaccination program, especially in regard to breeding stock. For instance, a lot of these guys for years were buying bulls without regard to whether they could be introducing BVD into their herds. Now you're seeing a real move toward testing these animals and demanding stock known to be BVD-free. That message is getting back to cow/calf guys."
3. Don't forget the bulls
Producers may be missing opportunity to improve their profitability through health management by ensuring bulls always receive a full breeding soundness exam, along with prebreeding vaccinations, four weeks prior to turnout. To Dr. Cox, soundness exams are a must.
"We're a real advocate of getting bulls vaccinated," he counsels clients. "The expense now can prevent a lot of grief at preg check time." The handling necessary for breeding soundness exams and vaccinations can be easily combined with the trichomoniasis testing that's becoming more common in that region. Effective bull management has made a marked difference in many clients' calving intervals, he believes. Vaccinating bulls and cows properly has significantly tightened many producers' wide calving season down to a more optimum 60 to 70 days. The resulting uniformity in calf crops has made a real difference in marketing options and prices achievable through load lot uniformity, helping offset costs above and beyond the performance advantages unlocked by better health.
Dr. Cox, whose clinic serves cow/calf and feedlot producers predominantly within the two tiers of counties across the southeastern quarter of Nebraska, has been in practice for 16 years, specializing in beef cow/calf operations. He was selected as the 2007 Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica "Unlock Your Potential" contest winner based on his participation during the National Cattlemens Beef Association 2007 Cattle Industry Annual Convention & Trade Show in Nashville. To enter the contest, visit Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica's booth at the World Dairy Expo, Sept. 30 through Oct 4, 2008, in Madison, Wis., or the annual convention of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, Sept. 25 through 27, 2008, in Charlotte, N.C.
About Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica
Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica Inc., St. Joseph, Mo., is a subsidiary of Boehringer Ingelheim Corp., based in Ridgefield, Conn., and a member of the Boehringer Ingelheim group of companies.
The Boehringer Ingelheim group is one of the world's 20 leading pharmaceutical companies. Headquartered in Ingelheim, Germany, it operates globally with 135 affiliates in 47 countries and approximately 39,800 employees. Since it was founded in 1885, the family-owned company has been committed to researching, developing, manufacturing and marketing novel products of high therapeutic value for human and veterinary medicine.
In 2007, Boehringer Ingelheim posted net sales of US $15.0 billion (10.9 billion euro) while spending approximately one-fifth of net sales in its largest business segment, prescription medicines, on research and development.
For more information, please visit www.bi-vetmedica.com.
Contact: Judy Myers-Kuhnhoff
Sr. Assoc. Director, Cattle Marketing
Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, Inc.