Reader Asks About Treating a Sick Heifer

Published on: 13:56PM Apr 01, 2010

By Dan Goehl, DVM

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Reader Asks:

I have a black angus heifer who is sick. She will not get up as a I approach her, she just lays there. I literally have to pick her up to get her to stand. I noticed that when she stands, she is rocking/sways as she takes some breathes. I have been giving her penicillin and treating as if she has pneumonia. Last night I noticed her eyes had some cold build up and a little drainage from her nose. One local farmer said I should expect to lose her, he said she sounds like one sick girl.

Dan's Response:

Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD) is the most economically important disease in the beef industry. To call it a disease is a bit of a misnomer as it is actually a syndrome made up of several pathogens (disease causing agents). 

Research from Iowa State University shows the economic impact of bovine respiratory disease on performance and carcass value in feedlot cattle. Researchers tracked almost 6,000 cattle fed in 10 feedlots over four years, with the cattle originating from across the Midwest and Southeast. They observed BRD in 8.2% of all cattle and found evidence of lung lesions in nearly 62% of a subsample of 1,665 carcasses. Cattle treated for BRD gained an average of 0.81 lb./day less than non-treated cattle during the four- to six-week starting period and 0.15 lb./day less during the full feeding period. At slaughter, treated cattle averaged 24 lb. lighter than non-treated cattle. The treated cattle had lighter carcass weights, smaller ribeye areas, less fat cover and less marbling. Compared to non-treated cattle, carcass value was $23.23/head lower for those treated once, $30.15 for those treated twice and $54.01 lower for those treated three or more times. 

Prevention is the key for BRD. Vaccination for some of the known pathogens of BRD will help prevent the syndrome. 

For protection of the calf it is important to vaccinate both the cow and the calf.  By vaccinating the cow it helps ensure high quality colostrum (first mother’s milk).  The colostrum is the calf’s first defense against disease early in life.  As the calf gets older, vaccination of the calf itself is important.  Timing of this vaccine can vary among operations.  Commonly vaccines are given to help prevent Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD), Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis (IBR), Bovine Respiratory Syncytial Virus (BRSV), and Parainfluenza (PI-3).  These come in a combination shot and my preference is to use modified live vaccine. 

Another vaccine commonly administered to young calves is Pasteurella and Mannheimia vaccine.  A calf with high levels of colostrums that is well vaccinated is much better prepared to face challenge by the agents that cause BRD. 

Early intervention is also paramount.  There are several newer generation antibiotics available from your veterinarian that is proven to be effective against BRD.

Dan Goehl, DVM, and his wife own and operate Canton Veterinary Clinic in Canton, MO, where Dan works primarily with stocker and cow/calf beef operations. Dan is also partner in Professional Beef Services, LLC, which offers herd consultation and helps in data management and marketing of beef cattle.

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