If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, then efforts to hammer bovine respiratory disease (BRD) before it gets started are worth their weight in gold.

"There is increasing concern about the industry's ability to successfully manage health costs in high-risk cattle," says veterinarian Charles Deyhle Jr. of Deyhle Veterinary Services in Canyon, TX. He explains, "BRD costs millions of dollars, and those are the costs we can see. The less apparent costs of reduced gain, conversion and quality grade are more difficult to visualize."

Moreover, Deyhle points out the BRD challenge has increased, in part, because improved genetics and nutritional management are bringing younger cattle to the feedlot that weigh as much as older peers in years past. So, the put-together sale barn cattle and the naive ranch-fresh calves, typically placed at the top of the risk list, can be even softer and more susceptible than before.

"We still don't have all of the answers on how to manage this," says veterinarian Bob Smith, a feedlot consultant with Palo Duro Consultation of Canyon, TX, who also holds the McCasland Chair in Beef Health and Production in the college of veterinary medicine at Oklahoma State University. He explains assuming BRD is the culprit behind a calf's droopy ears may be a high percentage bet, but the lack of effective chute-side diagnostic tools means some calves are misdiagnosed. As well, some cattle with subclinical disease are never identified and treated, robbing performance and profit potential every step of the way.

Cost, coupled with the challenge of creating one-size-fits-all programs for so many cattle entering a single operation from so many different sources, is why a growing number of feeders are working harder to stop BRD before it arrives at the feedlot.

"In reality, prevention is the key to minimize health cost and maximize performance of the different origins of cattle," says Deyhle. "The earlier the prevention, the more consistent the performance and the better the product will be."

Prevention By Preconditioning With that in mind, more feeders are using preconditioning with increased gusto.

"Looking at records, we feel holding cattle at least 45 days after weaning, before shipping, is probably as beneficial or more beneficial than a vaccination program," says Smith. Add effective vaccination programs prior to and after weaning, and Smith explains, "The calf has a chance to mount an immune response, while we're managing stress."

While preconditioning isn't a magic bullet that eliminates BRD, Gerry Smith, coordinator of Friona Industries' Hi-Pro Producer's Edge (HPPE) program says, "Generally we cut our death loss by at least a third, and you don't have as many chronics. Over the last few years chronics have been as much of an added cost as anything."

He's describing the performance of calves coming out of the HPPE program - which includes 45 days preconditioning with vaccinations before and after weaning - to calves coming out of the sale barn. He explains Friona customers typically place 35-40% of HPPE's calves in their yards. This year, 50,000 head will go through the HPPE program.

In terms of dollars, compared to sale barn calves, Gerry Smith explains HPPE calves have been worth $9-13/cwt. more heading into the feedyard. HPPE pays producers $8/cwt. beyond a pre-determined base price for putting calves through the preconditioning program.

For perspective, Dale Volmer, assistant manager of Friona's Randall County Feedyard at Amarillo - 68,000 head one-time capacity - says they used to figure with sale barn calves they'd have to pull 35-40%, and pencil in a 2% death loss. These days, pulls run 70-80%, and they pencil in 4% death loss. All told, a variety of factors have pushed average health cost on sale barn, non-preconditioned calves from $15-20 per head to $35-40.

"We figure that we're paying $45-50 more for a calf that has been preconditioned," says Gerry Smith. In return, these cattle offer lower morbidity, mortality and health cost, along with increased gain and conversion. Plus, he says, "Instead of going in day after day and pulling 150 head to treat, as an example, the feedlot crew can pay more attention to all of the cattle, not just the high-risk pens."

As well, Bob Smith explains, "A calf that experiences pneumonia in its life will gain 0.15-0.20 lbs. less per day than a calf that has not experienced pneumonia."

Richard Winter, manager of Randall County Feedyard says, "The problem with the industry is that we're bottom line driven, but we miss the forest for the trees. We focus so much on the front-end inputs, we often forget the rest of the story that we have to keep these cattle alive."

Although lower-priced higher-risk cattle are more attractive at times, he explains, "You may spend $3-4 less buying those calves, but you'll spend much more on the other end."

Indeed, Winter says results of the Texas Ranch To Rail program (Table 1) are representative of the bottom line improvement customers see when they make the commitment to precondition calves.

All told, Gerry Smith explains Friona brings few sale barn calves straight to the feedlot these days. "We know the benefits of the preconditioned calf, so if we buy high-risk calves, we'll put them other places first."

As an example, Friona converted a 5,000-head growing yard to a lot for straightening out calves. Friona also works with buyers who receive and straighten out high risk calves for them before shipment to their yards. Along the way, Friona managers like Winter tell customers about the trade-offs incurred by owning cattle with greater health risk.

Bottom line, Deyhle explains, "We believe cattle originating from preconditioning programs tend to have more complete respiratory vaccination programs, better nutrition, and have received more intense management prior to shipment. But, even in those cattle we still see some animal health challenges."

Getting Ahead Of The Risk Besides reducing risk before cattle get to the feedlot, some feeders are working more aggressively to control risk once cattle arrive.

At Randall County, Winter says, "If a customer isn't going to precondition, we at least try to find out the history of the calves and how they were handled. We may not mass treat the calves, but we'll take their temperature and give an antibiotic to those with an elevated temperature." They place those calves in an intensive care part of the yard with the most experienced pen riders.

Other times, treating an entire group, rather than waiting for the first one to break makes economic sense. "We've acknowledged we're getting softer cattle, often in excess numbers, and pressure on the labor force is ever-increasing. With the information we have available now, we feel like we can justify the mass medication of high-risk cattle," says Deyhle.

In a nutshell, the metaphylactic use of antibiotics - treating high-risk cattle with an antimicrobial before clinical symptoms appear - represents early intervention between prevention and therapy. Bob Smith explains studies have shown that metaphylaxis can reduce mortality and morbidity, while increasing daily gain by 10%.

While metaphylaxis offers opportunity, Bob Smith cautions, "One of the problems we face today as an industry - producers and veterinarians - is that we place so much of our confidence in chemicals, vaccinations and antimicrobials, when management plays equal or greater importance." In fact, he says, "I think the handwriting is on the wall that we will have to manage our cattle with less need for antibiotics. Using them in mass to cover up our mistakes will not be acceptable in the future."

That means increasing communication between industry segments to increase efficiency overall. "One of the things we are going to have to do as an industry is use the technology we have today, looking forward to the technology of tomorrow, applying it at critical times during a calf's life and minimize stress," says Bob Smith.

As an example, he explains there are benefits to the whole industry when producers spread stress over a calf's life, like castrating and dehorning calves at 2-3 months of age, then turning them back with their dams, rather than jerking them off the cows and doing everything all at once. Likewise, he says paying more attention to nutrition of the calf and cow herd, including trace minerals and vitamins essential to proper functioning immune systems, will pay the industry dividends.

And, Bob Smith says, "We need to use animal health products in such a way that enhances the beef product." In other words, the industry needs to continue its progress with beef quality assurance programs that include subcutaneous injections and intramuscular injections in the neck rather the hip, which can cause injection site blemishes in the top butt.

In the meantime, the luxury of providing healthy calves is quickly becoming a necessity for cow/calf producers. Winter believes high-risk cattle will become even more intolerable in the future. Besides cost and labor, he points out sickness increases weight variation, making it next to impossible to market cattle on a value-grid, much less, build a consistent product.

In fact, some feedlots already avoid high-risk types all together. "Especially farther north you're starting to see a lot of yards that won't bring in any sale barn cattle, other than yearlings," says Gerry Smith. "The guy that goes in and gets them preconditioned and weaned so they're less of a health risk opens up other markets."

Likewise, reducing BRD losses paves the way for industry progress. "The thing we're missing right now is the opportunity to capture these lost opportunities from the cow herd all the way to the packing house," says Bob Smith. "We all have to work together to produce beef as efficiently as possible, and as desirable to the consumer as possible."