With the majority of the U.S. population now several generations removed from the land, those in agriculture must work harder than in past generations to win consumers' trust. But beyond reshaping America's view of our business, we need to expand its sphere and influence, attract non-traditional students to our industry and work to increase the value of our products at the production level.

  • The beef industry must also guard against the notion that it's a “mature” industry. The auto industry, after all, is a mature industry. Yet it seems to be able to increase sales and the value of its products almost yearly.

    The auto industry doesn't just sell cars. It builds and sells Cadillacs, Chevrolets, Fords, etc., in a number of different styles, models and options. It couples these quality, finished products with major marketing strategies to persuade the public to purchase its product.

    Only relatively recently has the beef industry begun to explore the concept of beef products marketed as a unique quality food product.

  • The industry must continue to emphasize that producers aren't just cattle producers but food producers. Producers also must understand that cattle by-products (non-edible products) have value and are potentially more valuable than the food that's produced.

    Beyond the well-acknowledged cattle by-products — such as fats, proteins and leather — lies an even greater potential for increased value at the farm level — the pharmaceutical industry. This includes products such as blood factors, chymotrypsin, cortisol, glucagon, heparin, insulin, pancreatin, thrombin, vasopressin and vitamin B12.

Currently, the companies that produce these products for the pharmaceutical industry have no contact with the source of cattle used. Instead, they deal with brokers who assure them of a high level of quality control. While this may be true when they control the product, brokers have no idea of the quality of the product they receive.

Packers, brokers and producers of the final products currently retain these profits. How can the producer recoup some of the value of the cattle used to produce such a highly valued final product?

By demonstrating a quality grade of cattle that meets or exceeds specifications of the highest order — that's how. For example, animals that contribute to a supply of blood products or substitutes should be free of infectious disease, as unstressed as possible and have been fed no meat and bone meal.

They should have had no contact with any cattle with transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, scrapie in sheep, or chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer and elk. The identity of the cattle must be maintained from conception through final processing. In addition, all products used in production and for treatment of animals should be recorded.

Cattle such as these could be considered pharmaceutical-grade cattle. Cattle produced in this manner and in large enough quantities could meet the demand and should be worth $5-$10/cwt. more than commodity-grade cattle. To achieve this level of quality, producers may need to adopt certain management practices that would help assure consumers of beef and beef by-products that beef industry practices reflect the high standards of quality they demand in other industries.

Standard Operating Procedures

Many industries including manufacturing and transportation have standard operating procedures (SOPs) in place to guide their businesses. SOPs at the farm level should begin with two requirements:

  • Provide farmers and ranchers with clear, concise procedures for eliminating and controlling disease risk factors on their operations.

  • The execution of those procedures should be clear to others.

    The development of SOPs begins with specific areas of risk and application. A quality control program utilizing the principles of hazard analysis of critical control points (HACCP) is a good model.

    Such a quality control program utilizing HACCP principles should include the following:

  • Identify the potential risks related to production — disease risks, public health concerns and quality, along with identification of critical control points (CCP) in production.

  • Determine the appropriate parameters for CCP and set the “normal/abnormal” values.

  • Monitor the CCP.

  • Establish corrective action when a parameter deviates from a normal limit.

  • Establish a record system that verifies the program and is simple to use.

As an example, let's look at the area of abortion diseases. Leptospirosis is a cause of abortions in domestic cattle. Therefore, determining the risk of contracting lepto in the herd could involve:

Step 1. Lepto is a zoonotic disease that can be carried by a number of wildlife, as well as domestic livestock. Some estimates put the prevalence of lepto at 65% in cattle.

Step 2. The appropriate parameter for this disease is 0% loss due to abortion. Determining carrier animals is difficult and likely doesn't show a cost benefit.

Step 3. To monitor the event, each abortion should be submitted for diagnosis. Since preventing exposure will be difficult due to the potential for wildlife contact, it's important to raise the level of resistance through immunization to protective levels.

Step 4. In most herd situations, this requires annual vaccination. In highly endemic areas or when abortions occur due to this organism, two or more vaccinations/year may be required.

Step 5. The last step is developing a system to record these events.

The Veterinarian's Role

The veterinarian's role in defining and writing SOPs in the production of quality beef cattle would include:

  • health of animals and public health,

  • environment and facilities,

  • nutrition and reproduction and

  • genetics.

Health of animals and public health are the areas that must be at the forefront of a veterinarian's total commitment to quality. The cornerstone is a biosecurity program.

Biosecurity is a program or plan designed to prevent introduction, increase disease resistance and minimize exposure to animal, zoonotic and foodborne pathogens. Three principles guide a biosecurity program.

  • Prevent the introduction of infected animals.

  • Raise the overall level of resistance and specific resistance to infectious disease.

  • Minimize herd exposure to infectious disease.

Preventing Introduction

Certain diseases must be kept from entering the herd. But because it's virtually impossible to keep all disease or pathogens from the production unit, a focus must be maintained on a few.

Several principles are involved in preventing introduction of infected animals.

  • Limit additions to the herd, or only purchase heifers from well-known sources. This also applies to bull purchases.

    Producers purchasing cattle from other sources need to have some information about the overall and specific disease incidence, as well as vaccination history. There needs to be a high level of trust between seller, buyer and their veterinarians.

  • If information is incomplete, test the cattle for certain diseases. According to survey data from the National Animal Health Monitoring Service (NAHMS), only 1% of cattle are tested for bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) and 0.2% are tested for Johne's.

Veterinarians must push harder for sound incoming animal testing protocols. Animals brought in without benefit of history should be quarantined for at least 30 days, tested and vaccinated. This is particularly true for Johne's, bovine leukosis virus and persistent BVD shedders.

Raise The Resistance Level

Raising the overall level of resistance combines proper genetic selection, proper nutrition and minimization of stress. Cow-calf producers need sound unbiased information regarding genetic selection.

Important genetic influences that affect cow costs and production include mature size, calving ease, mothering ability, teat and udder conformation, disposition, uniformity and fleshing ability. Factors that influence production are weaning weight, milk production, fertility, yearling and carcass weight and quality. Color is not indicative of either cost or production, though value at the feeder calf level is influenced by color.

The goal of any cow-calf operation should be to maintain a herd uniform in color and size, and as efficient and low-cost as the environmental conditions dictate. For many beef cowherds, this may mean a herd that is 50-100% of British breed in origin. For other operations, combinations of bos tarus and bos indicus breeds may be the most appropriate. The remainder will consist of one or more other breeds that fit the color, production and efficiency criteria.

Purebred cattle can be used in commercial operations if enough genetic diversity exists within the breed to provide some free heterosis. Once proper genetic selections have been put into effect, the nutritional issues can be addressed.

Cow-calf nutrition is challenging but not difficult. The major goal is minimizing feed costs while maintaining body condition adequate for reproduction and lactation at critical times of the year. To minimize stress, both on animal and man, perhaps we must challenge our traditional notions of a winter or early spring calving season.

Meanwhile, specific resistance is influenced by the choice of vaccinations, particularly lepto, campylobacter, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) and BVD. NAHMS data indicates that only 17-28.5% of cows are vaccinated on an annual basis for these pathogens.

The main economic loss due to lepto is abortions. Susceptible animals usually abort in the third trimester due to infection of the developing fetus.

Because lepto can be spread by other animal species, it can't be effectively prevented from entering the herd. Thus, lepto vaccines must be used at least annually. In areas where lepto is endemic, more frequent vaccination is necessary.

In closed herd operations, the risk of contracting campylobacter (campylobacter fetus spp. venerealis) is low. The disease is spread venereally by mating. The most common clinical effects of vibrio are a drop in pregnancy rate and a longer calving interval.

In a clean herd with no introductions of outside females or bulls, the risk is very minimal. But in most commercial operations today, this doesn't exist.

Most vaccines today incorporate the five most common serovars of lepto (canicola, grippotyphosa, hardjo, icterohaemorrhagiae, pomona) with campylobacter.

Today, annual vaccination against IBR and BVD is controversial. The greatest risk of IBR and BVD infections is economic loss associated with abortion, increased morbidity and mortality and for BVD persistently infected (PI) animals.

For years, it was assumed that protection with modified-live vaccines (MLV) was a lifetime effect. This is still open to debate, but the real issue is one of risk analysis and risk management. What's the risk of herd exposure to a field challenge of either IBR or BVD?

The risk exists in most commercial operations. Females are often purchased without benefit of testing or quarantine, while bulls are purchased without any knowledge of current herd disease status.

Even when vaccination programs are outlined in sale catalogs, most bull buyers don't seek veterinary advice regarding the program's quality. In the majority of purchases, this may appear to work quite well. But in a quality control system with responsibility for disease control, the veterinarian will likely seek to lower the risk of exposure and increase the specific immunity.

The risk of infection with any of the common pathogens is really not known. However, there is information as to the number of immune animals necessary to prevent spread of disease.

The spread of disease depends on the basic reproductive rate — Ro (how many new cases arise on average from one infectious animal) of an infectious disease agent. It's been estimated that the critical proportion of needed immune animals is expressed by this equation: critical proportion = 1 - 1/Ro.

For IBR using two different vaccines, it was estimated that Ro was 2.4 and 1.1. Therefore, the critical proportion would be 0.24 and 0.10, or 24% and 10% of the animals.

The higher the Ro the greater the number of animals that must be immune in order to prevent spread of the infectious agent. If Ro in a vaccinated population is larger than 1, then the vaccine cannot totally prevent the spread of infection and other biosecurity principles must be used. For BVD it has been estimated that, in a herd with exposure to PI animals, approximately 97% of the herd must be immunized (not the same as vaccination) to stop transmission of the virus and protect the herd.

As veterinarians, we must recommend that producers maintain a high level of herd immunity. Costs to the cowherd will be anywhere from $1.50-$3/cow/year. By maintaining an annual vaccination program consisting of lepto, vibrio, IBR and BVD, the number of immune animals is increased and the actual risk of infection with these agents and disease transfer is significantly reduced.

Assuming that one case of abortion disease costs $350, the equivalent of a cow's annual cow costs, then a 1% loss would cost $3.50/cow.

There are other causes of abortion in the cowherd, but they tend to be sporadic in nature and not highly contagious. Still, they can cause significant losses in individual herds.

Neospora caninum is an emerging abortion pathogen. Neospora is a coccidian protozoan originally found in dogs. The life cycle is not entirely known, but evidence exists that points to the dog as the definitive host. There seems to be evidence for congenital infection of the parasite and also epidemiological evidence of a higher abortion rate for previously infected cattle.

Feed and water should be protected from fecal contamination by dogs, cats and wildlife. When a proper vaccination protocol is in place for IBR, BVD, vibrio and lepto, and an infectious abortion storm is experienced, Neospora caninum must be high on the deferential list.

Minimize Herd Exposure

Infectious disease and pathogens of importance are salmonellosis, cryptosporidiosis, E.coli 0157:H7, IBR, BVD, campylobacter, brucellosis, tuberculosis and listeriosis. From a practical standpoint, animals and people will never be free from exposure to microorganisms, nor is it necessarily desirable.

Several actions are necessary to implement this objective:

  • All animals showing evidence of contagious disease should be isolated from other animals and a diagnosis of the cause pursued.

  • Minimize contamination of feed sources, water sources, bunks and equipment.

  • Require veterinarians, other professionals, truckers and visitors to bring clean boots, clothing and vehicles to the farm. This is important not only in terms of keeping infectious disease off the farm but also minimizing the spread of disease within the production unit and minimizing the spread of potential foodborne pathogens.

In cases of foodborne illness, it's important to remember that animals may be the pathogen source but not the cause. For such an illness to occur, pathogens must be present, replication of the agent must take place and improper handling and preparation is usually required for the agent to survive.

Pathogens may be introduced at any point in the system, at the farm or during slaughter, processing, packaging, distribution and preparation. Prevention programs should be in place at every step to reduce the risk to the end user. It's also important to keep in mind that zero risk is not possible.

Veterinarians have been involved in total quality management of food production operations for years. Veterinarians in the pork industry have learned the importance of biosecurity and exposure control.

But for many in the beef industry, written documentation of a plan or set of goals hasn't been a part of our service. Quality control (using HACCP principles) for the farm and ranch is coming, and we're the ones with the knowledge and access to implement the principles. Let's be ready.

G.L. Stokka, DVM, MS, is a former associate professor and Extension beef veterinarian at Kansas State University. He's currently a member of Pfizer Animal Health's technical staff and is headquartered in Cooperstown, ND.