BRD Risk Categorization for Feeder Calves: Part 1

Of all cattle treated for sickness, around 50 per cent will be treated for bovine respiratory disease, says Roger Ellis, South Dakota State University Beef Specialist in the first installment of two discussion about calf health and BRD.
calendar icon 2 July 2013
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Roger Ellis, DVM
SDSU Extension Beef Feedlot Field Specialist

The beef feeding industry recognizes that feeder calves entering the finishing, back grounding, or stocker phases of production pose several challenges and risks. Identifiable risks include the economic risk of the volatile purchase and sales prices of the cattle, the risks of increasing feed and ancillary costs, the risk of poor performance, and the risk of disease, death loss and the associated costs. In regards to animal health risks, Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD) is the major disease risk for feeder and stocker cattle and the most demanding health challenge that producers face. Cattle feeders should prioritize to control BRD and minimize these risks with sound management and cooperative planning with their herd veterinarian.

BRD: Effects on Production

Morbidity and mortality in newly weaned/received feeder cattle from Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD) continues to be the most significant health problem facing the feeding industry. BRD accounts for well over 50% of all cattle treated for sickness with reported average incidence rates in groups of calves at 14% (Loneragan, 2001). Several studies have documented the economic impacts of disease on the profit outcomes of calves. Direct costs attributable to BRD include death losses, treatment and labor costs, and prevention costs. BRD has been shown to impact growth performance and feed efficiency, days on feed, carcass merit and market value. The bottom-line of all studies indicates that BRD can decrease the returns of individual cattle from $50 to $250.

A summary of the Iowa Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity Data (2002-2004) revealed the following:

  • Healthy cattle returned $201.16 per head more than cattle treated twice for disease.
  • Increased death loss and treatment accounted for up to $148.47 per head in lost revenue, while reductions in performance and carcass merit further reduced net return by an additional $52.69 per head.
  • 17.5% of all calves (2,334) were treated as a primary result of bovine respiratory disease (BRD).
  • Sick cattle lost three to four times more dollars from inferior quality grade than were returned for lower yield grade.
  • Mortality rate was 100 times higher for cattle treated twice compared to non-treated cattle.

In a survey of feedlot consultant veterinarians (Terrell, 2012), the predictive factors for BRD morbidity and mortality were listed in order of importance:

  1. Cattle Health Risk.
  2. Weather patterns.
  3. Labor quality and availability.
  4. Receiving period nutrition.
  5. Prevention programs utilized, such as vaccination, metaphylaxis and treatment protocols.

In addressing the number one predictive factor (the cattle themselves), it is recognized that the type, origin, age, source, and management background of the calves are factors that influence the health of the cattle. Additionally, the genetic, environmental, nutritional, and immune status also contributes to the risk of disease. Furthermore, the management stressors that are imposed upon calves will compound all these other factors. Pollreiz (1991), Smith (2001), and others have promoted a strategy to categorize the disease risk of feeder and stocker calves that is widely accepted. This is used to establish the risk potential for BRD, the market value of the calves accordingly, and the management strategies that are recommended for each category. These calves are assigned a BRD risk category according to the major predictive factors known to increase or decrease risk (See Figure 1).

Figure 1. Calf BRD Risk - Predictive Factors and Effects

Table 1. BRD Risk Categories for Feeder Calves

Source: Pollreiz, 1995

Another example of a BRD risk categorization protocol to use for managing disease and cost risks which is recommended by the author:

A BRD risk assignment protocol is recommended to be developed by cattle feeders, with the aid of their consulting veterinarians, to establish health management programs to implement upon the arrival of feeder cattle. Furthermore, this system should be used to select and price calves to offer management controls on the economic risks for feeding each category. Lastly, each category should be thoroughly evaluated to determine the opportunity for profitability within the marketing programs utilized, particularly in grid/formula based and “natural beef” marketing programs. Steps taken to minimize adverse cattle health will enhance cattle feeding profitability through reduced costs and losses, improved performance and increased market value. Disease risk management is yet another tool to manage profit opportunity.


Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity Cooperative. (2004). Iowa Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity data represents 13,321 calves from 12 states fed at eight Iowa feedlots during 2002-04. Lewis, IA: TCSCF.

June 2013

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