Battling Against Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD) With A United Front

Imagine for a moment, you are on a youth beef quiz bowl team with questions focused on testing your knowledge of cattle health.

It’s the final round and your question is: The No. 1 health issue affecting calves during their first few months of life is scours/diarrhea—but after about three months old, what disease is the biggest threat to calves’ health throughout their remaining lifetime?

If you answered bovine respiratory disease (BRD), you’ve earned a winning point for your team.

Considered the most economically costly disease affecting the U.S. beef cattle industry, BRD encompasses any infections of calves’ upper and lower respiratory tract and lungs.

The disease results in symptoms ranging from fever and reduced weight gain to coughing, pneumonia and death1.

While the beef industry recognizes BRD is stealing more than a billion dollars annually2 in calf performance and end beef product, the solutions to addressing this disease remain challenging.

Why? Many of the factors causing BRD are the result of pathogens and environmental conditions calves are exposed to.

There’s a cumulative effect on the calf through the marketing chain, including physical and social stress and immune challenges from weaning, commingling, shipping and potentially being commingled again upon arrival at a feedyard.

There are genetics that may predispose a calf to BRD. Swings in weather and changes in nutrition as they move from ranch to market auction to feedyard also put them under stress.

Because of the complexities of the disease and the beef industry, it has been difficult to curb BRD.

In fact, despite the many preventive interventions, diagnostics and treatments available, we have not seen significant improvements in BRD incidence in the beef industry over the past decade— with morbidity and mortality rates reaching as high as 50% in some groups of feedlot calves3.

But looking ahead, as an industry focused on continuous improvement and future sustainability, the beef industry has a significant opportunity to move the needle to address BRD control.

Prevention is Key

How can we flip the script on BRD? I believe it begins with a mindset shift among cow-calf producers.

Take a moment to think about the genetics you use for your herd. Most likely, you strive to invest in the best genetics you can afford.

Likewise, when it comes to feeding your cow herd and preparing for calving season, your nutrition program and developing a healthy cow to be a mama is also looked at as an investment.

Taking that perspective one step further, cow-calf producers can view preconditioning and vaccination programs as an investment to help prevent BRD as calves move through the weaning, marketing, shipping and feedlot phase.

Just as tractors and fencing are investments on your farm or ranch, vaccination programs are also an investment for the overall beef industry because they contribute to lifelong health and productivity.

The investment in animal well-being and overall performance of the calf are how we as an industry can successfully mitigate BRD. 

When applied prior to stress periods, a vaccine can be an effective tool to raise the threshold of disease susceptibility—not only for the animal but the herd as a whole.

So when the animal or herd is exposed to the same pathogen again, it doesn’t overcome their immune system the second time around.

Best practices

In addition to committing to a vaccination protocol, there are some recommended best practices to evaluate with your local veterinarian to ensure you are receiving the best return on investment. Among the considerations:

  • Vaccination timing. A vaccine is most effective before the disease challenge arises4,5. For example, waiting to get a flu shot until you have the flu doesn’t work. The same can be said with cattle. So determine when vaccinations can be done before weaning or shipping stressors occur.

  • Find the right product fit for your operation. There are several different BRD vaccines on the market. Evaluate which product offers the technology that fits your operation with regard to cattle, management, facilities and labor. As examples, there are killed bacterin and toxoid vaccines and also modified-live viral vaccines, which may only require a single dose. Keep in mind, new and improved vaccines are continually being introduced to the marketplace. Just as we upgrade our phones to new technology from time to time, we should explore the new vaccine technology available and what it offers as well.

  • Understand and follow label claims. Incorrect label use and mismanagement can overwhelm an effective vaccine. Ask your veterinarian to help interpret and apply label information.

While there is no “cookie-cutter” approach to address BRD, the good news is: We have many effective tools available and these tools can be tailored to each operation’s individual needs.

As a final point, throughout this Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve heard the phrase, “We’re all in this together.” That’s true in life —and it’s true in the beef industry.

We must think more holistically and recognize that our industry begins with the cow-calf producer. To do that, disease prevention begins there and benefits the entire industry.


  1. Griffin D. Economic impact associated with respiratory disease in beef cattle. Vet Clin North Am Food Anim Pract. 1997;13:367–377

  2. Peel, D. The Effect of Market Forces on Bovine Respiratory Disease. Vet Clin North Am Food Animal Practice. 2020; 36: 497-508

  3. Brooks KR, Raper KC, Ward CE, Holland BP, Krehbiel, CR, Step DL. Economic Effects of Bovine Respiratory Disease on Feedlot Cattle During Backgrounding and Finishing Phases.

  4. Richeson, J. et al. Vaccination Management of Beef Cattle: Delayed Vaccination and Endotoxin Stacking. Vet Clin North Am Food Anim Pract 2019 35: 575–592

  5. Powell, JG et al. Immunologic, health, and growth responses of beef calves administered pentavalent modified-live virus respiratory vaccine in the presence of maternal antibody versus a traditional vaccination regimen. The Bovine Practitioner.

The above is provided for information purposes only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of any condition. This information does not cover all possible variables, conditions, reactions, or risks relating to any topic, medication, or product and should not be considered complete. Certain products or medications may have risks and you should always consult your local veterinarian concerning the treatment of your animals.