For Brian Grant and Gideon Fox, risk management starts the minute that calves arrive at their stocker and backgrounding programs; it continues until they’re sold and shipped away. And testing for persistent infection (PI) cattle that spread bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) is vital in keeping animals healthy so that gain and performance aren’t hindered.

Grant massages all sides of risk management at Heritage Cattle Co., his Bowling Green, KY, operation that includes an order buyer service. He’s thinking about hedging opportunities and a health program the day calves are bought from regional auction barns.

Fox also runs high-risk, sale barn cattle for himself and customers. They’re preconditioned at his Columbia, TN, operation, then placed on stocker operations or feedyards. Both cattlemen know a slip up in either the animal health or marketing end can bust profit potential.

Grant says his operation annually “grows about 10,000 cattle on a 75- to 90-day rotation. They are predominately lightweight heifers. Since most are sale barn cattle, they’re high risk. Finding sick cattle early is essential.”

His overall processing program for calves in the grower program includes an initial vaccination for IBR/BVD PI3 and BRSV and a Pasteurella vaccine, blackleg, deworming, and depending on the time of the year, some sort of metaphylaxis. Cattle are tested for PI on arrival.

Fox and his cattle manager, Mike Parks, take a similar approach. “We handle all weights of cattle,” Fox says. “We custom precondition for some customers, sell some of our own to stocker operators in the Texas Panhandle, and retain ownership of some through feedyards in Nebraska.

“We vaccinate (against pneumonia and intestinal diseases) within two days after cattle arrive,” he says. “And we’re constantly tweaking and changing due to the conditions or time or year it is.”

Preventing BVD and bovine respiratory disease (BRD) are major targets of both the Grant and Fox programs. Both feel blocking BVD is best accomplished by testing to identify PIs at processing. They use a simple v-type ear notch test.

Calling the process “a hedge against BVD,” Grant has seen a major reduction in realizers, or cattle that don’t respond to treatment. Death losses are also down since he began PI testing in 2009. Cost of each PI sample test is about $3.50/head.

Grant says he performed his own study to determine if PI testing paid off. “We looked at health records for about 2,760 cattle we handled in 2008 before we started with PI testing and compared them to about 2,800 cattle we handled in 2009 after we PI tested,” he explains.

In 2008, they recorded 41 realizers and 88 deads. In 2009, the number of realizers dropped to 34. More importantly, the number of deads dropped to 35. The number of realizers dropped from 1.48% to 1.20%, and the number of deads from 3.18% to 1.25%. “Our pulls have dropped from 30% or more before we started PI testing to 8-10% now,” Grant adds.

PI cattle normally don’t show BVD symptoms. However, their mucus, tears, nasal discharge, urine, feces and semen all carry the scourge of the disease. Their “shedding” can infect any other animal they contact in a pasture or pen, resulting in BVD running rampant.

Fox says PI testing has nearly eliminated such situations. Pulls are down dramatically for cattle on his program at 3-4 weeks after arrival. “If you’re not doctoring them, they’re gaining,” he says. Parks and his processing crew have seen major improvements in animal health since PI testing began two years ago. “I’d call it financial suicide not to PI test,” he says.

Chris Chase, South Dakota State University veterinary science professor, says a BVD-infected animal can lead to more problems.

“BVD turns off all the defense systems,” Chase says. “Animals with BVD are more susceptible to BRD. The sooner we can find that PI animal and remove it from the herd, the better off we are. If you have a PI, you’ll always have a threat. You can’t vaccinate around it.”