Bovine respiratory disease complex has multiple causes. It's sometimes hard to classify and predict. It also costs the beef industry more than any other disease -- an estimated $690 million in 2006, according to one report.
That's why a team of K-State researchers is stepping in. Using a three-year, $375,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the team is analyzing data from feedlots to develop decision-making tools that will make it easier for producers to manage cattle health.
The research team is led by the College of Veterinary Medicine's David Renter, assistant professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology, and Brad White, assistant professor of clinical sciences.
The researchers are working toward several objectives, including a system to classify distributions of disease within feedlot pens. The researchers also are seeking to generate estimates of the effect various risk factors have on the multifaceted disease complex. A better understanding of the data would let feedlot producers compare their data with averages and make more informed decisions about managing and treating herds.
Renter and White are looking at data that feedlots collect, such as how many cattle get sick and when the problems are most likely to occur. The problem is that feedlots don't analyze this information on a daily basis, Renter said. Rather, they look at data that from an entire feeding period. Analyzing data in real time could improve treatment and disease management.
"Right now, there's not something producers can go to like software that tells them that cattle in this particular pen are experiencing more disease than expected, for instance," Renter said.
Producers already can predict with some accuracy which cattle are likely to get sick. But bovine respiratory disease complex "is not a simple, contagious infection like the chicken pox," Renter said.
It is caused by multiple viruses and bacteria common in feedlots. Some of them even show up in healthy cattle. Such factors as immunity, feed intake and the weather can influence which cattle get sick, as can stressors like being weaned or moved from farm to feedlot.
"Part of the cost associated to producers is that we can't predict as well as we want to," Renter said. "There's so much variability in how many cattle will get sick."
Renter said the research done at K-State will supplement the work being done by producers and consulting veterinarians. What makes the research at K-State so valuable is that the team is looking at data from multiple sources, and the researchers will share their tools with people in the industry. With the groundwork laid at K-State, further work could yield software or other decision-making tools, Renter said.
Other K-State collaborators are Abram Babcock, doctoral student in pathobiology; Suzanne Dubnicka, assistant professor of statistics; Robert Larson, professor of clinical sciences; George Milliken, professor emeritus of statistics; Christopher Reinhardt, assistant professor of animal sciences and industry; Michael Sanderson, associate professor of clinical sciences; and Dan Thomson, assistant professor of clinical sciences.
Photos: Dave Renter (left) and Brad White are analyzing data from feedlots to help producers more closely manage the health of cattle. Photos by Dave Adams, College of Veterinary Medicine.