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BVD is real...and expensive

AgriLabs Published on 20 October 2011

Three producers share how they've focused on biosecurity practices to control BVD virus in their herds.

BVD virus is a real threat to cow-calf operations - it's not just something that happens on other ranches. That was the message conveyed by three producers who shared their experiences in combating BVD (bovine viral diarrhea) virus during the U.S. BVDV Symposium held this past January in Phoenix, AZ.

"I want producers to know BVD is real," James Palmer of the Matador Ranches said during his presentation to symposium attendees. Palmer was joined by fellow cattle producers Bill Rishel of Nebraska and Tom Hougen of Montana, who also shared their experiences in testing for BVD in their cow herds. Here are the lessons they've learned:

Matador Ranches, Eureka Kansas

Matador Ranches has cow-calf and stocker operations in Texas, Montana, and Kansas. Manager James Palmer relayed that they have been testing for BVD in their Kansas operation since 2004. He said a drop in conception rates, increased abortions, and respiratory problems in calves have indicated over the years that there has been a herd-health issue. They've incurred losses due to these health issues and Palmer confirmed: "It's expensive."

To combat BVD, Matador Ranches is now testing its calf crop, purchased yearlings, and the cow herd as needed, and vaccinating cows and calves.

Palmer emphasized to other producers that, if they suspect BVD in their herds, he would begin by testing groups of calves. Then, if BVD is confirmed, test the cows. He advised producers to really pay attention to what are the signs of BVD because the disease may not be obvious.

"You do not know what a persistently infected (PI) calf looks like,” he commented, "because they can appear healthy." Palmer added that understanding the source of the infection - where the exposure to BVD is coming from - is key.

"If you find a PI animal, don't take it to the sale barn. It is a moral obligation to take that animal out of the U.S. cattle herd," he advised.

To those who downplay the importance of BVD control, Palmer reiterated, "This is real. If you don't believe it's real, start testing and find out."

Rishel Angus, North Platte, Nebraska

Bill Rishel shared that BVD control really is part of a whole-herd biosecurity program. As an Angus breeder he said, "If you only look at controlling BVD, it's a lot like single-trait selection."

He relayed that while BVD may be a problem, there can also be other herd-health and nutritional issues. The bottom line is that altogether they can add up to make a major impact on profitability.

Rishel emphasized that herd health should be approached by keeping cow-herd records, focusing on nutrition, and having in place vaccination protocols and overall management. "If you don't have records, it is difficult to solve the problems in your herd," he pointed out. Some of the factors that Rishel Angus monitors include reproductive performance, calf survivability, and calf performance.

Rishel also advocated monitoring management strategies to minimize herd-health issues. This can include careful management of replacement females, communicating with neighbors about herd-health and vaccination practices, and knowing the source and vaccination protocol of purchased animals coming into the herd – or isolating and testing them if their history is unknown.

Of BVD testing within herds, Rishel said, “I think there is a huge obligation of purebred breeders to do these things; we owe it to our customers.” He added, “I’d tell anybody not to buy a bull that isn’t tested.”

Likewise, Rishel advocated proper nutrition for cow herds. “I think many herd-health issues are extremely impacted by nutrition. I believe you can increase BVD resistance because of better nutritional methods.”

He also follows a strict vaccination protocol which includes administering three doses of a modified-live BVD vaccine to replacement females prior to breeding.

As a seedstock supplier to many producers who retain ownership of their calf crop, Rishel concluded, “We don’t just provide genetics, but want to offer other attributes… we see it as our obligation to help our customers be more profitable.”

Hougen Ranch, Melstone, Montana

Montana rancher Tom Hougen shared that he was caught off guard by BVD. After battling several sick calves postweaning on his commercial cow-calf operation in the fall of 2002, a year later he finally tested his herd and confirmed that BVD was the culprit. He had not previously been vaccinating or testing for BVD.

In the six years since, Hougen has worked with his veterinarian to implement a control plan for his herd. He now annually vaccinates cows and calves against BVD - and if any suspect or dead calves are found they are tested. He estimates that BVD infection in his herd cost about $25,000 in lost animals and performance.

Today, Hougen advocates maintaining a sound vaccination protocol, screening all new animals coming into the herd, and re-screening herds with suspected breaches in biosecurity.

Of his BVD experiences, Hougen said,"I had no clue that calves could be persistently infected with BVD... until it hits you at home, you have no idea." He is now a firm believer in the importance of educating other producers about BVD.

"If you suspect a BVD problem, I think you need to screen your whole herd and do it before you turn out the bulls," Hougen recommended. This would include the current crop of calves, bulls, and replacement females. Cows only need to be screened if they have a PI calf.

His message to other producers is this: "If you've got a BVD problem in your herd, don't hide it. Go to your neighbors and the person who buys your calves; work with them to solve the problem." 

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