Bovine respiratory disease (BRD) costs the beef industry more than $1 billion annually in reduced performance, death loss, medicine costs, labor and reduced carcass value. While eliminating all cases of BRD is unrealistic, the industry has made little progress over the years in reducing BRD incidence.

During my years in private practice, I asked numerous feedlot clients if they secretly desired to be feedlot veterinarians. Everyone gave me an emphatic “no!” No one wanted the headaches of dealing with sick cattle. So, why did these folks continue to buy unweaned, unvaccinated (commodity) calves from multiple sources?

There were two reasons — such calves were abundant and, most importantly, they were cheap. But the problem was that, after treating all the calves once and some calves multiple times, these “cheap” calves would ultimately end up costing more than the preconditioned calves that topped the sale. Clients that fed fully preconditioned calves after experiencing numerous wrecks with commodity calves rarely went back to buying commodity calves.

The weak link in the preconditioning system is that many producers lack the facilities and/or the feedstuffs. Many producers say they have no choice but to remove the calves from the dams and sell them without vaccinations, deworming or weaning.

This indeed may be true for some producers, but only for a very small percentage. While buying fully preconditioned calves is the goal of most feedlot owners, here are five options for ranchers between offering commodity and preconditioned calves:

  • Wean On Grass

    Work at the University of Missouri has shown that weaning calves onto grass with fence line contact to their dams can be an excellent option for farms or ranches that lack the facilities or the necessary feedstuffs. Over the past 20 years, this facility has had only four sick calves and zero cases of BRD among its 4,500 fully preconditioned calves, with the calves typically gaining at least 1.5 lbs./day for the first 60 days.

    Researchers in other areas of the U.S. have had similar results. We see this as a tremendously viable option for many herds across the country.

  • Early Vaccinations For BRD

    Conventional wisdom says vaccinating calves at a few months of age against BRD (IBR-BVD-PI3-BRSV) isn't effective due to maternal immunity blocking the vaccination. This conventional wisdom is wrong.

    Work by Vic Cortese, a Pfizer Animal Health DVM, proved that protective immunity to IBR is stimulated by use of an approved modified-live product as early as one week of age. Check with your herd health veterinarian about using a viral BRD vaccine as calves go to grass or in the summer when fly control is undertaken.

  • Pre-Weaning Vaccination

    We would like to see calves held at home after weaning for a period prior to shipment. But if this isn't possible, vaccinating 2-3 weeks pre-weaning still makes sense. This allows the buyer of the bawling calves to boost rather than expose the calves to the vaccines for the first time. This could help to bring a serious buyer back next year.

  • Anti-Nurse Devices

    After reading an article in BEEF (“The Weaning Two-Step,” November 2001) about the use of an anti-nurse device to reduce the stress of weaning, we tried this technique on a group of calves.

    The goal at weaning is to minimize stress on the calf as much as possible. All studies indicate that such stressors as feed changes, surgeries, commingling, etc., at the time of weaning increase the incidence of BRD.

    Even in complete preconditioning programs, calves still have two stressors at weaning time — separation from their dams and cessation of nursing. Using an anti-nurse device, stress is minimized because the calf is left on its dam during weaning.

    In our small study, calves fitted with anti-nurse devices either were eating or lying down chewing their cud 12 hours after weaning, and their dams were out grazing. Meanwhile, control cows bellowed at the fence line while their calves bellowed and walked the fence. The stress level difference was dramatic.

    Use of the anti-nurse device in a traditional preconditioning program could be as follows:

    If backgrounding isn't feasible, calves could move to grass (Option 1) or to market in a reduced stress/vaccinated program.

  • Limited Nursing Options

    More than 30 years ago, we reduced weaning stress by allowing calves to nurse once daily for about a week before weaning. This is nearly impossible for a large ranch in range conditions, but many smaller herds successfully use it. The calves are limit-fed a complete ration that allows their rumen to adjust to the diet they'll eat in the feedlot.

  • Earlier Weaning

    Calves weaned at about 150 days of age tend to have fewer BRD problems than those weaned at 205 days or later. The nutrition options for these calves include high-quality forage or forage-plus-grain.

Another advantage of earlier weaning in spring-calving herds is that the cows tend to go into winter in better condition.

As the marketplace continues to discount commodity cattle, producers need to look at various options to reduce weaning stress. While a complete preconditioning program is the “gold standard” for health, complementary or alternative programs may have a place in your herd.

Mike Apley, DVM, Ph.D., is an associate professor of beef production medicine at Iowa State University in Ames. W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical assistant professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.

2 weeks Prewean: BRD vaccine
1 week Prewean: Place anti-nurse device
Weaning Day: Repeat BRD vaccine
Remove anti-nurse device