If life in the beef business is a game, playing by the rules certainly doesn't guarantee victory in the end. That's especially true when you're trying to protect your calves against shipping fever.

“What worked last year won't work this year,” says Ronnie Jones, a beef producer in Comanche, OK. “This year I did things by the book and have all kinds of problems. It's frustrating,” says Jones, who runs 120 head on his 1,360-acre ranch.

He's not alone. Beef producers nationwide annually lose an estimated $1 billion to shipping fever, according to the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA). Those losses come in animal deaths, reduced weight gain, lower feed efficiency, antibiotic needs, carcass trimming at the packing plant and poor-quality meat and hide products.

Formally known as bovine respiratory disease (BRD), shipping fever results from an interaction of stress, immunity and infectious pathogens — usually Mannheimia (formerly Pasteurella) haemolytica and Pasteurella multocida — which invade the lower respiratory system.

“It's such a complicated, interwoven complex,” says Billy Cook, livestock specialist with the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, OK.

But thanks to participation in a retained ownership program (ROP), Jones and two dozen other ranchers in southern Oklahoma and northern Texas are helping researchers learn more about shipping fever while gaining valuable insight about their own herds' performance.

Jones participates in the Noble Foundation ROP. “Everyone should want to know what their cattle are doing, and this is the only way I know how to do it,” Jones says.

The ROP began in 1996 as a producer education program. Its primary purpose is to help producers make breeding and management decisions by teaching them about the industry's demands and showing how their calves perform relative to industry norms. The program also aims to create opportunities for participants to enhance their returns.

“We've been on their place, seen their cowherd, and know their production system. Therefore, we can make accurate recommendations to fine-tune a producer's operation.” explains Cook, who regularly works with Jones and other producers in the ROP.

“It's a tough business to make much money in. So any money we can help them keep in their pockets is rewarding, not only to the producers but to us as consultants,” Cook says.

Running in conjunction with the ROP is a five-year, $2.4 million shipping fever research project directed by the Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine (OSU-CVM) and funded by a Noble Foundation grant.

By assessing the health status of the calves from the ranch to the processing plant, the researchers can tell how a specific calf responds to vaccines. Through this and other studies, they hope to reaffirm vaccination recommendations and develop and evaluate new and improved vaccines, says OSU's Robert Fulton, DVM.

The project has four main objectives:

  • Understand the key pathological processes in shipping fever.

  • Determine predictors of illness and/or treatment success in shipping fever.

  • Develop DNA-derived vaccines.

  • Improve management practices and treatments for prevention of shipping fever.

“We want to reaffirm the vaccination recommendations we've made to see by repeating these in subsequent years that our recommendations make for healthier cattle and greater economic return,” says Fulton. Along with project director Anthony Confer, DVM, Fulton co-directs the research project and leads the objective of studying pathological processes in shipping fever.

Fulton and other OSU-CVM representatives test the cattle at entry into the program for BRD agents and possible susceptibility to diseases. More than 380 miles later at Hitch Feedyard in Guymon, OK, Shawn Blood, DVM, and the sick pen crew collect samples from the cattle that enter the sick pen.

The Oklahoma Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory in Stillwater evaluates all of the samples for viruses and reports back to OSU-CVM. Confer examines the tissues for lesions, and the OSU-CVM labs test the serums for antibodies to pathogens.

“Not only do we know the vaccines given, we know whether the animal responded to those vaccines, and we know the dates the vaccines were given,” Fulton says. “So it's not just that they got the vaccine, but whether they got it in a timely manner.”

Now in its third year, the project is advancing as the researchers have assessed arrival health status at feedlot entry and related it to feedlot performance and carcass value.

One thing they've found is that differences in herd morbidity and treatment costs were mostly related to the appropriate timing of the vaccine (last dose at or near delivery of calf) or the lack of a second dose of killed vaccine.

“What we want to stress is the timing of these vaccines — that they be given adequate chance to really do their thing,” Fulton says. “You can't ask the calf to get protected if the day he's shipped is the day he's given the vaccine.”

In general, the herds that don't use killed or modified-live vaccines in a timely manner are the ones that don't have success, he says.

“My recommendation is to get the respiratory viral vaccines and the bacterial vaccines into the calves before the most stressful times of their lives — commingling and shipping — and to let the vaccines have a chance to work,” Fulton says.

The project has uncovered other predictors of illness as well as predictors of treatment success.

One surprising predictor of treatment success is the role of Pasteurella multocida serum antibodies in vaccinates, says Confer, who also leads the vaccine development studies.

“I can't explain all the reasons why, other than we know that P. multocida tends to be associated with a little bit more chronic type of pneumonia. Perhaps by protecting the cattle from P. multocida with a vaccine, maybe those cattle tend to respond to one treatment better,” Confer says.

“That's why one of our recommendations last year was to make sure producers, when vaccinating cattle for bacteria, use a product that includes P. multocida. Some vaccines don't,” he explains.

The researchers also have identified the significance of bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) viruses in shipping fever. Current commercial vaccines don't include one particular BVD virus found in shipping fever, Fulton says. He hopes his work will help remedy that.

Some other significant findings include:

  • The presence or absence of viruses or bacteria upon entry were not predictors of illness in the calves.

  • Herds with low morbidity had higher BVDV1 antibodies than herds with high morbidity.

  • Calves with low BVDV1 and BVDV2 antibody titers had increased total treatment costs.

  • Low Pasteurella multocida, low BVDV1 and low BVDV2 antibody levels were related to a decreased net to owner (carcass value minus total costs in feedyard).

  • Calves treated twice or more had lower BVDV1 serum antibody levels than those treated once or not at all.

Based on last year's results, Fulton says they strongly urge producers to use Mannheimia haemolytica and Pasteurella multocida vaccines.

In fact, Fulton says the lack of such vaccines may explain some of the sickness and the one death loss Jones faced with the cattle he recently entered in the ROP.

A review of Jones' vaccination history reveals that he gave both doses of the four-way viral vaccine in a timely manner but did not use Mannheimia haemolytica or Pasteurella multocida vaccines.

Jones says he's thankful for the information that's available through the ROP and he's confident in the research OSU is doing.

“Dr. Fulton is doing the very best that he knows how to do,” he says.

Cook adds, “They may not find all the answers (to shipping fever), but they will identify the right questions to ask.”