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How to treat BRD profitably

October 4, 2019

Bovine respiratory disease (BRD) is the number-one cause of feedlot cattle death in North America and represents more than 70% of all feedlot death and sickness. BRD is the single-largest source of morbidity and mortality in feedlots, causing an estimated $2–3 billion in losses annually (Fulton 2009; Irsik 2006). So how do you treat BRD?

First, you need to know that the phrase “treating BRD profitably” is nearly an oxymoron. Once an animal gets BRD — or shipping fever, as it’s sometimes called — four separate economic factors are negatively impacted: treatment costs increase, productivity decreases, labor costs increase and the likelihood of a BRD re-treat, chronic re-treats and/or death increases as well. Especially in a tight beef cattle market, relying on being able to treat BRD while staying profitable is practically impossible.

What is BRD and how do you spot it?

BRD is the general term for any disease of the upper respiratory tracts (e.g., bronchitis, rhinitis, tracheitis) or lower respiratory tracts (e.g., pneumonia). It is known as a “disease complex,” stemming from three factors usually working in combination: stress, a viral infection and a bacterial infection. BRD normally impacts cattle in the first four weeks after weaning, and it can be fatal.

Symptoms of BRD:

  • Droopy ears
  • Fever
  • Lethargic behavior 
  • Lack of appetite (going “off-feed”)
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Coughing
  • Bloody or excessive nasal discharge

Four strategies for beating BRD in your feed yard

A common cliché in sports is that “the best defense is a good offense.” The same principle applies to BRD. The best way for you to defend against having to treat for BRD is to have a proactive, offensive-line strategy that prevents BRD in your receiving program. Here are four things you should do to prevent BRD:

  1. Reduce stress at all costs

Investing a bit more to ensure the receiving health of your cattle will pay big dividends when it comes to BRD. Remember: cattle have just endured a long, strenuous trip to your yard, so doing everything you can to reduce their stress upon arrival is critical. This begins with providing a good, clean environment with as little overcrowding and dust as possible. Pay special attention if and when adverse weather occurs (e.g., excess heat, cold, rain, etc.) and adjust accordingly to accommodate them. Be sure to provide sufficient bedding as well so the animals can get some much-needed rest. The initial process of co-mingling can introduce countless diseases, even beyond BRD, so giving cattle to have a clean place to rest will allow them to both settle down and fight off any health challenges.

Additionally, having your team trained in low-stress handling practices will help keep cattle calm when they arrive. This means limiting the amount of yelling, excessive noise and the use of electric prods to keep stress to a minimum.

  1. Provide good nutrition early and often

There are three keys to preventing BRD via nutrition. Though often overlooked, the first and most important key when cattle are arriving to the feedyard is getting them to drink water. Water is a critical first nutrient. After a long, stressful trip, getting cattle clean water as quickly as possible will help them acclimate and address any dehydration they could have experienced during transportation. The second key to preventing BRD is providing highly palatable, nutrient-dense feed. Especially during the first four to five days, getting cattle to eat much of anything may be a challenge. A good choice to include in your ration would be either a wet or dry distillers grain (depending on what is available in your region). Distillers grains are high in protein, very palatable and are generally cost-effective for a start-up ration.

Sometimes, the smallest ingredients can have the biggest impact on your cattle’s health. Providing the right micronutrients to maximize health and performance is the third and final nutritional key to preventing BRD. Establishing good gut health and mineral status proactively are paramount when attempting to stop BRD before it starts. Feed additive products from Alltech, such as Bio-Mos, can help drive gut health, and Alltech’s Bioplex and Sel-Plex support maximum trace mineral status. Both of these products are backed by peer-reviewed scientific research and have been used by producers as a part of their comprehensive BRD programs.

  1.  Establish a vaccination program with a vet you trust

Step one in this process may be developing a relationship built on trust with your vet. This goes beyond just “knowing” your vet to actually having full confidence that the vaccinations you are providing will set your animals up for success. A skilled local veterinarian is your best ally to make sure that the vaccines are working most effectively to fight BRD outbreaks. Furthermore, vaccination histories should play an important role in where you source your cattle. For example, finding animals who have been vaccinated as many as 45 days pre-weaning and again before shipping will help boost your ability to prevent BRD in the feed yard.

  1. Use your tools wisely: Good pen riders and technology

Remember, cattle are animals of prey — meaning that they will do everything they can not to appear sick or wounded. A skilled pen rider with a keen eye is still your best preventative tool against BRD. Not every case of BRD can be prevented, but putting an end to it before it becomes critical can make all the difference. There can be as much as a three-to-five-day gap between when an animal begins to experience the symptoms of BRD and when those symptoms can be visibly detected. This makes early identification all the more important for a pen rider. The longer BRD goes undetected, the more “catching up” an animal will need to do once treated. That means lost money for your yard. As such, checking animals multiple times a day is good, profitable prevention against BRD.

New technologies continue to aid in the preventative fight against BRD. Many of these technologies still need further development before being profitably introduced, but progress is being made. Early detection swabs, drones, smart ear tags, facial recognition cameras, sensor-based hydronic shoots and much more will help reduce the labor needed to effectively manage cattle and improve overall animal welfare.

Again, your best defense against BRD is a good offense. By putting these preventative strategies in place, you are giving your cattle the best chance to be healthy and profitable. Your ability to combat the number-one feedlot disease can and will make a big difference for your operation today.



Fulton, R.W. 2009. Bovine respiratory disease research (1983–2009). Cambridge University Press 2009 Animal Health Research Reviews 10(2); 131–139.

Irsik, M., M. Langemeier, T. Schroeder, M. Spire, J. D. Roder. 2006. Estimating the Effects of Animal Health on the Performance of Feedlot Cattle. The Bovine Practitioner, 40(2); 65-74.


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