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BVD PI screening eliminates costly problem

Clifford Mitchell Published on 01 April 2011
Cow and calf

Market projections forecast input prices to continue to climb, while cattlemen enjoy a good market atmosphere.

Feed, fuel and fertilizer, often key economic drivers from the production side, show little relief and low cow numbers project good markets well into the future.

Profit margin is important for most outfits; however, getting the most out of available resources often goes hand-in-hand with these projections.

Most operators realize losses during outbreak or drastic weather changes; silent “profit robbers” move subtly through the herd, stealing dollars like a thief in the night.

“BVD is not a train wreck like some reproductive diseases. A reduced pregnancy rate could be blamed on many things and most producers just hope it goes away,” says Dr. Bruce Hoffman of Animal Profiling International, Portland, Oregon.

“Most find BVD by accident. Once the problem is diagnosed, producers realize how BVD has been affecting the herd,” says Dr. Christine Navarre, extension veterinarian at Louisiana State University.

Persistently infected (PI) cattle can be costly for even the most well- run operations. Small changes will impact the bottom line, especially in the current market scenario.

“Look at the pounds of weaned calf per cow exposed. Figure in the cost of treating some calves and lost performance.

This could be a big loss,” Navarre says. “A good vaccination program is good management, but it won’t keep BVD out of the herd.

BVD is subtle, but it costs you money and it is difficult to account for losses in reproductive efficiency unless you keep great records.”

“Operators have to screen the herd to find the problem. Eight to 9 percent of the herds in the West have a PI animal,” Hoffman says. “The signs are reduced pregnancy rate and poor calf health.

With the price of calves today, this year may be the year to screen the herd. The last thing you want is more sickness or fewer calves.”

Screening the herd is another cost for most operations. Working to eliminate the losses associated with even one PI can be very cost-effective. Not only will this subdue lost revenue, but also add a marketing component.

“This is extremely cost-effective for most cow-calf operations. A two-dollar-per-head cost is extremely cheap for most herds.

A 2 to 5 percent loss in pregnancy rate is huge,” Hoffman says. “At current market prices, cost is not even the value of one calf. There is also an opportunity to market BVD PI-negative calves.

Buyers want those calves and some cattlemen test every year to market that advantage.”

“Testing for PI calves is very cost- effective. We have to do everything we can to get as many cows bred as possible. If you have 100 cows and conception rate decreases by 5 percent, that’s five calves,” Navarre says.

“Testing is a marketing tool. If you find one PI calf, it’s well worth it. That calf is shedding huge amounts of the virus and it can be very contagious.”

“For my operation, the cost of production has increased so much, there is no point in wasting time and money on defective animals.

Compared to some tests, two dollars per head is pretty cheap,” says Eddie Parker, of Parker Angus Ranch in Waurika, Oklahoma.

Testing for PI cattle can be worked into most current management strategies. The timing of the test will impact future performance and is critical to eliminating the problem before it starts eating away future profits.

“I am not sure if testing every animal is cost-effective. Testing every calf before the bulls go out will help eliminate reproductive problems if you find a PI.

Those calves have to be eliminated before breed-back,” Navarre says. “Test the mother of any PI calf to make sure she’s not a carrier. Attack the problem. It could be poor nutrition to blame for low conception rates.”

“Branding, traditionally, is a good time for most to screen the herd before the bulls go out,” Hoffman says. “This is important because it will break the cycle. Most PIs are formed during the first trimester. If PIs are eliminated before breeding, you won’t create new ones.”

Keeping the herd free of BVD PI cattle comes down to forming a biosecurity plan that fits current management. For most, screening the herd will help define biosecurity goals.

“Ranchers can protect their herd from PI cattle if they have benchmark data and continue to keep the herd clean,” Hoffman says.

“Don’t buy a bull if he’s not tested BVD PI-negative. If you buy your replacements, find a source that can provide PI-negative females.

If you have a clean test and use a modified-live vaccination program, the probability of having a problem is very low, if you test purchased animals.”

“Each producer should work with their local vet if they discover a BVD problem.

Creating a simple biosecurity plan to cover a lot of diseases is a step in the right direction,” Navarre says. “Test any new cattle, bulls and replacement heifers that come into the herd and keep pregnant animals separate until you can test the calves. Changing biosecurity doesn’t do any good unless you keep bringing in PI-negative cattle.”

Seedstock operators, looking for advantages in the marketplace, have already taken advantage of PI testing. Providing the PI-negative option fits other advanced testing protocols for some of these operations.

“When you sell breeding stock, our customers don’t want to buy problem cattle and that includes PI carriers. Every calf is DNA-tested to measure things like growth and efficiency.

It’s not perfect, but it gives us a good look under the skin,” Parker says. “A negative test is another piece of information we can give our customers for peace of mind.”

Adverse affects of BVD are well documented. Production losses can be found in several areas. Eliminating these losses should help the bottom line. Persistence, cooperation and diligence could be crucial when it comes to capitalizing on testing for this “profit robber.”

“In our area some people co-graze marsh grass leases. For testing to be effective, everybody has to be on same page,” Navarre says.

“Testing is not perfect. Find a lab you are comfortable with and make sure you do some quality control. One PI is all it takes to reduce profit.”

“The market tells us PI-negative calves are worth more,” Hoffman says. “BVD is costing the industry over one billion dollars. We could test every calf born for 50 to 60 million dollars. I think that’s a pretty good return on investment.”  end_mark


Screening the herd for PI calves needs to happen before bulls are turned out. This will break the cycle because BVD PIs are formed in the first trimester. Decreased conception rates is the biggest problem associated with PI calves. One PI calf can have a tremendous effect on breed-back. Photo courtesy of Animal Profiling International.