Given the high price of calves, pasture rents, fuel and other inputs to a stocker operation, protecting animal health becomes even more critical for profitability. Without early diagnosis and treatment, respiratory disease, particularly during the first few weeks after arrival, can cause considerable losses.

John Currin, an Extension veterinary specialist at Virginia Tech, says bovine respiratory disease complex, or shipping fever, remains the most important health issue facing stocker-cattle producers. He adds that in spite of advances in understanding BRD, vaccine technology and new antibiotics, the incidence of BRD has not changed much. He cites several possible reasons for the trend.

  • Today’s 500-pound calf is much younger than it was 40 years ago.
  • Today’s 500-pound calf is less likely to have been weaned now than it was 40 years ago.
  • Stocker producers tend to buy cattle more frequently, unlike bringing in a major group or two 40 years ago.
  • Stocker producers have larger numbers of cattle than 40 years ago.

One thing that has not changed over that time, Currin says, is that the most important predictor for successful treatment of BRD is early recognition and treatment. Calves treated early in the course of the disease will have a much greater chance of responding than those treated later and are less likely to have severe lung damage that can limit future performance.

Kansas StateUniversity veterinarian Brad White also stresses early intervention. He says that over time, respiratory infections tend to progress through several stages, beginning with an early phase with no clinical signs and just minor performance losses. Next, mild signs appear, eventually progressing to severe clinical signs. At each stage, tissue damage becomes more severe and treatment becomes less effective.

Typical clinical signs of BRD, White says, are temperatures of 104º F to 108º F, head down, ears low, sunken flanks, nasal discharge and decreased appetite.

One key to early detection and successful treatment, White says, is to allocate appropriate labor to check calves often. During high-risk periods — particularly the first 21 days after receiving — someone should check calves at least two to three times each day.

White notes that calves will try to conceal signs of sickness, so it can be beneficial to observe the group from a distance, watching individual animals for behavior that could indicate early stages of BRD.

Currin recommends that producers discuss antibiotic selection with their veterinarians, and use the products only in accordance with their labels. If sick cattle fail to respond to a particular antibiotic treatment there could be reason to switch to a different product. But, he adds, the first step should be to evaluate whether sick calves are being identified soon enough, as the most important reason for therapy failure is allowing the disease to progress too far prior to treatment.

Nutrition also is important for recovery from BRD, and Currin recommends providing sick calves with excellent quality hay and grain. Unless the weather is severe, calves often benefit from being outdoors in the sunlight rather than being in a barn with poor ventilation. Currin adds that providing one gallon of warm water and electrolytes per 100 pounds of body weight can help stimulate appetite and correct dehydration in calves that are sick for more than 24 hours. Vitamin B and probiotics also can help stimulate appetite.