Respiratory and other diseases of feedlot cattle not only rob the animal of economic value in terms of weight gain and treatment costs, but they also have an impact on carcass quality. The information that follows demonstrates this loss.

The Texas Ranch to Rail data (Table 1, below) was one of the first data sets to quantify the cost of illness. “Until this information was well-publicized, we did consider the cost of treatment to be essentially the same as the cost of illness,” explains Jerry Stokka, DVM, MS, Pfizer Animal Health. When this information was turned into application by feedyard owners and order buyers, then the value for calves that had lower risk of bovine respiratory disease (BRD) became more valuable in the marketplace. “When this value was recognized in the marketplace, then cow-calf producers were willing to change management and, in some cases, spend more money on recognized disease prevention strategies at the cow-calf level.”

Taking the Ranch to Rail data at face value, the cost of illness in a calf at the feedlot phase is $75/calf. This means that for every 10% in morbidity there is an extra $7.50 cost assigned to every calf in the group. At a 30% level of sickness, every calf must assume an extra cost of $22.50. “In order to change this equation, prevention must be focused at the cow-calf stage, at the weaning stage and at the feedlot phase,” says Stokka. Even at the feedlot phase, the negative effects of disease can be ameliorated if early diagnosis and effective therapy in instituted.” Stokka notes that though this information was only from a one-year study, it still demonstrates that disease is costly.

Impact on carcass quality

The beef industry has changed from one of strictly a commodity business to one of a branded, high-quality business. “If you look at those beef markets that need high marbling carcasses for their business, such as Certified Angus Beef, I believe all of them will tell you they cannot keep up with demand,” says Stokka. “If BRD has a negative impact on marbling, which all the research seems to indicate, then it is imperative that we prevent as much disease as we economically can.”

  • Heifers treated for BRD had lower marbling scores, resulting in a 37.9% reduction in the percentage of carcasses grading USDA Choice or above. Heifers never treated produced a net return (carcass basis) that was $11.48/head more than heifers treated once for BRD and $37.34/head more than those treated two or more times. This negative impact on carcass traits 200 days later illustrates the importance of preventing BRD in calves.1
  • The use of carcass merit to determine the value of fed cattle provides an improved economic signal of the cost of cattle disease.2
  • The value of disease avoidance, as well as rapid diagnosis and treatment of disease, increases when cattle are sold on carcass merit basis because of the negative effects of disease on carcass traits.

Disease prevention

For disease prevention, Stokka stresses the role of genetics, nutrition for the pregnant cow, reducing stress for the cow and calf, and making the point with producers that the health of calves is really “programmed” at the cow calf stage. “We can make things worse at the next stage, be it backgrounder/stocker or feedlot, but the setup for health is on the ranch.”   


1. Stovall TC, Gill DR, Smith RA, Ball RL.
Impact of bovine respiratory disease during the receiving period on feedlot performance and carcass traits. Agricultural Experiment Station, Oklahoma State University, Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station, Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, Oklahoma State University,
Stillwater, Okla. 2000/980,982-986. 4 ref.

2.  Larson RL. Effect of cattle disease on carcass traits. J Anim Sci 2005;83:E37-E43