Feedyard managers and stocker guys might call it a bad luck/good luck story. Dan Thomson calls it riding the epidemiological curve to glory.

It happens like this, says Thomson, a former feedyard veterinarian and the Jones Professor of Production Medicine and Epidemiology at Kansas State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. “The thing that dictates when we buy calves is the market. And we can draw up the perfect plan and say we're not going to have more than this many high-risk calves at a time, but we still have to make a living.”

So, when the market dictates, feedyards and stocker operators tend to buy those “cheap” calves. A lot. “And we overload the system with too many high-risk calves.”

High-risk calves — lightweight, from multiple sale barns and commingled, non-vaccinated and probably weaned in the trailer — will start showing clinical signs within two weeks after arrival if they break with respiratory disease. Ranch-fresh calves break about 30 days after getting off the truck. “So somewhere between 14 and 30 days on feed is when we see our peaks in morbidity,” he says. If a calf succumbs to bovine respiratory disease (BRD) and dies, you'll treat it for about 30 days before doing the post.

“If we start buying calves on Labor Day, it's going to take 14 to 30 days before we start seeing the increase in pull rates. From that point, it's going to take another 30 days before we see a peak in death loss.”

But if you kept buying those “cheap” calves, you got the big scare and hollered “calf rope” about the time Halloween rolled around, Thomson says. “It's about that time that you quit buying those calves, said the drug quit working and decided to change vets because something has gone wrong.”

So you change brands on the bottle and hire a new consultant. “We quit buying calves at Halloween because we've overrun the system and we're tired of feeding these high-risk calves. But we're still going to have high mortality rates for 60 more days because we continued buying them from Labor Day through Halloween.”

By Christmas, the wreck is over. So everyone gets a nice Christmas present, and the new vet and the new drug get the credit for the turnaround. “And it's not that the drugs quit working or that the bug changed, it's just the normal progression of BRD,” he says.

Buying 'em right

Thomson says dealing with BRD in cattle boils down to three things — the weather, the people and the cattle. “Ninety percent of death loss with respiratory disease in feeder cattle is associated with those three things.”

The weather, of course, you can't do anything about. You can, however, take some steps to counter it. “When we have bad weather, general animal husbandry — nutrition, water, shelter, supplying cattle comfort and getting them a place to lie down out of the mud — is important,” he says.

Then there are the people. “We have a shortage of people in general. We have fewer people lining up to work in our operations. Also, we have fewer people with a background in cattle handling or in cattle disease identification. Based on this, it is sometimes easier to see if we can get by with one less person. So we're trying to get by with fewer people than it takes to do the job adequately.”

And then there are the cattle. And that's where, through their buying practices, feedyards and stocker operators can have the most impact. “When we don't prepare them — don't castrate them before they're three months old, don't select animals without horns, don't vaccinate them and don't teach them what a feed bunk or water tank is — there's nothing in a bottle that's going to fix that problem.”

Thomson says as feed costs continue to hover in the nosebleed section along with fuel and other inputs, it's imperative that cattlemen buy more predictable calves. “I used to think that the term high-risk calves was only used to describe the health status or predicted morbidity of the cattle,” he says. “But the more I'm around this deal, high risk is also tied to economic risk, because those cattle are not as predictable and can cause an economic wreck.”

Not all high-risk calves will present a health challenge. And while some operations may handle enough cattle that they can play the odds and weather a BRD wreck, many producers can't. “If you buy 100 head and have a wreck, you're done. High-risk calves are really an economic risk as well as a health risk.”

Thomson, who is a big proponent of preconditioning, thinks more people are better preparing their calves for life after the ranch gate. And more feedyards and stocker operators are buying preconditioned cattle, thus putting extra dollars in ranchers' pockets, because they realize it's cheaper to not buy a problem in the first place than buy “cheap” high-risk calves and tally your losses when the wreck is over.

But he says if it was just about dollars and cents, we wouldn't be working with animals. “Our obligation to the calves we raise doesn't end when we stick them in that sale barn. What we owe that calf is a chance to go on and produce.”

Thomson says cattlemen have the best tools ever available to them. “The drugs we have are awesome. The vaccines we have are awesome. But we've never changed how we market cattle. There comes a point in time where we have to realize, as an industry, that we have to prepare our animals to make the transition through the marketing channels, because there's nothing in a bottle that's going to make up for animals not being prepared,” he says.