by Sally Colby

It’s a fact: Consumers are several generations removed from the farm and don’t understand agricultural production. While farmers have worked hard to garner consumer trust, there’s still a gap between what happens on the farm and what consumers believe. Despite education campaigns and increased farm transparency, many consumer distrust issues are centered on animal welfare and antibiotic use.

In the case of bovine respiratory disease (BRD), there’s a fairly good chance cattle will be treated with antibiotics. But Dr. Ron Gill, professor and Extension livestock specialist at Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, said good stockmanship can reduce or even eliminate the incidence of BRD, and thus the need for antibiotics.

BRD a respiratory disease complex that involves both viral and bacterial pathogens. (Parasites also play a role.) Clinical signs include fever, lack of appetite, rapid breathing, coughing and nasal and ocular discharge. BRD is the result of a host of components, from nutrition to handling, and Gill said that as managers, every aspect of the animal’s life should be handled to reduce the risk of BRD.

“Cattle just don’t routinely get sick without some kind of stressor involved,” he said. “Most of the stress we see applied to cattle in their lives is the result of human interaction. Welfare has a direct impact on stress level and on the immune system. The human-animal interaction is critical in reducing the risk of BRD.”

Gill challenges producers to consider what cattle go through in the production chain. The number one stressor that leads to issues is the weaning process and how cattle are handled during that phase. “Weaning itself is very stressful,” he said. “The best thing is to keep calves at home and don’t add another stressor like transportation, co-mingling or sorting at the same time the calf is weaned from the cow. That’s one of the first things that will help in the BRD complex – unstack and restack the components of stress.”

Another major stressor for cattle is the marketing channel. The risk of BRD on the farm is low because cattle aren’t co-mingled, loaded and unloaded, sorted and resold, but once cattle are subjected to repeated stress throughout marketing, the risk rises. “We just start stacking things on top of one another,” said Gill, “and we don’t think of all that as we’re preparing cattle for market.”

Gill said the main goal in the stockman/public interface is to exhibit that we care about the livestock we’re handling, but that falls apart if cattle are being worked roughly. “We can do better,” he said. “We have to do better in marketing channels – that’s where a lot of stress and exposure to pathogens happens. There isn’t a good way around it, so we have to manage that process better. It’s a very public part of what we do, and it’s a place where activists look to see if they can find something wrong.”

Gill is a strong proponent of livestock being handled throughout their lives in order to gain experience with human contact and handling, but not in a completely stress-free environment. “Anybody can handle cattle,” he said. “It isn’t necessarily ‘low stress.’ You can be very effective in your stockmanship and not create a lot of stress. It isn’t about being real slow and not creating stress – it’s about getting them through the process where they understand what’s going on even when there’s pressure, and it doesn’t overwhelm their system.”

Research has shown that high-strung cattle don’t get sick often. “I think part of that is their system is used to stress so it isn’t such a big deal to them,” said Gill. “Cattle with a calmer demeanor that do get stressed show more effects of stress. The worst thing about overreactive cattle is they’re dangerous – hard to handle and hard on people. Safety is an issue. There’s a balancing act – we need cattle that will respond to people and pressure. We don’t need to dumb them down so they don’t move and don’t know how to handle stress.”

But management isn’t the only aspect of keeping BRD at bay. Gill believes there’s a genetic component to susceptibility. “Heterosis helps that aspect,” he said. “We also have to look at timely vaccination of cattle.” Although he doesn’t have data to back up his theory, Gill said there’s often a higher incidence of respiratory disease in cattle that have been vaccinated multiple times, which indicates the possibility that vaccines could be overwhelming animals’ systems.

Gill believes the cattle industry has a good take on what constitutes good animal welfare. Concerns about feedlot cattle are unfounded – cattle are among others of the same general size, can move about freely and have excellent nutrition and healthcare. Welfare issues arise when we create situations that cause illness.

“If we do what we need to do from a management standpoint, we set up a good scenario for consumer perception,” said Gill. “The image of an old-fashioned roundup with cracking whips doesn’t appeal to consumers. We need to look at the tools we can use, which are great if we use them correctly.”

While some consumers are opposed to the use of feedlots for finishing cattle, Gill said the majority of feedlots are well-managed and have good hospital pen management. A critical aspect of managing sick animals is timely detection, and advances in infrared technology allow stockmen to detect fever in animals that aren’t showing any other clinical signs of illness. Cattle will show signs of illness sooner in a calm, quiet atmosphere.

“From a stockmanship standpoint, if cattle are relaxed around the pen riders and the people working those cattle, cattle will exhibit signs of sickness about two days earlier than if they’re somewhat anxious,” said Gill. “If we can pick up sickness two days earlier, it’s a lot easier to pick up the onset and progression of BRD. It takes less antibiotic to get them over it. We don’t have to treat them for as long or as many times.”

Cattle are perceptive and learn who to trust, and it’s important to be able to move cattle out of a pen quietly for treatment. “Not only do we need to detect [illness] – if we’re running cattle around a pen to get them out, that signals the rest of the pen that something’s happening and not to trust someone coming into the pen,” said Gill. “Cattle will mask symptoms based on how cattle are being handled several pens away.”

Reducing stress through good handling allows cattle to develop healthy immune systems. Lower stress means a healthier immune system that’s equipped to fight viruses and bacteria. Ensuring appropriate vaccinations and preventative protocols help reduce antibiotic use.

“I don’t think we have to justify the use of antibiotics to treat BRD,” said Gill, “but when it becomes so pervasive in the industry that the consumer may be concerned about it, the industry is concerned as well.”