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A Many Tiered Cattle Marketing System: From a Health Perspective

Livestock Update, September 2007

Dr. W. Dee Whittier, Extension Veterinarian, Cattle VA-MD Regional College of Veterinary Medicine


A cattle marketing system that would provide higher prices for “quality cattle” has certainly developed in the US.  Higher prices for groups of calves at feeder cattle sales have, in part, their basis in grid pricing, source verification and branded programs for the final meat product.  A careful examination of the system bears out, however, that the health status of groups of feeder cattle plays a major role in their pricing.

The term “health”, when applied to feeder cattle generally refers to the subject of “shipping fever” , also called pneumonia, respiratory disease or, more technically, bovine respiratory disease complex.  The disease has a very high incidence in recently marketed calves and results in hundreds of millions of dollars in loss to the cattle industry.

Respiratory disease has an economic effect because it costs money to treat and because of death losses that occur.  Although cattle that experience the disease and recover are often documented to recover or compensate for weight gains that do not occur while they are sick, losses in feed efficiency can nearly always be measured while cattle are sick.  A finding that seems to be very consistent is that cattle that experience disease have lowered carcass quality grades many months later when they are harvested.

Of special interest to Virginia cattle producers is the health impact on cattle that go to the kosher beef trade. These cattle are harvested in a special way related to the religious aspect of their future consumption.  Key to the process is that cattle must be “without blemish”.  A high percentage of potential kosher cattle, otherwise eligible for the high premium, fail to qualify for the lucrative trade because lung lesions associated with earlier cases of pneumonia are found after slaughter.

From a health standpoint I believe that at least the following tiers of calves, in descending order, exist in terms of their likelihood of either becoming sick after sale or having the hidden blemishes of having been sick:

    Calves higher on the list above bring, I believe, premium prices, not only because of their vaccination and weaning history but because it is perceived that management throughout their lives has been better.  This management probably involves better genetics, parasite control, mineral nutrition and general freedom from stress.  The perception is that these calves were produced by a producer who really cares about the product that he is producing.

    As a final note it should be said that no group of calves is guaranteed to not get respiratory disease.  The disease is so complex that factors beyond control of the producer and buyer may have an overpowering influence so that outbreaks occur despite the best management.  However, when thousand of calves in each category are analyzed, management to reduce the incidence of disease makes a difference and buyers of calves are willing to pay higher for calves less likely to become ill after purchase.

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