By Larry Stalcup, Contributing Editor

Debbie Lyons-Blythe has known the importance of ranch stewardship and animal welfare since she was a little girl in the Kansas Flint Hills. She was prepared for the beef industry’s drive to improve sustainability that has hit high gear the past decade. Merck Animal Health and other animal health companies are helping producers and feeders like her to become more sustainable.

Of course, many cattlemen and cattlewomen roll their eyes when they hear sustainability talk – barely breaking even or losing money, and their traditional independence are among the causes. Yet, the message continues – and for good reason.

Misinformation spewed by animal activists and other anti-agriculture groups must be countered with facts from crop and livestock producers and industry leaders. More sustainable translates into becoming more economically sustainable, as well as more environmentally and socially sustainable, said Jessica Finck, Merck value chain and consumer affairs specialist.

She was among a Merck team that addressed animal health and production issues during recent company product and service discussions and demonstrations in Amarillo and Vega, Texas. Lyons-Blythe, whose mother, Jan Lyons, served as National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) president in 2004, was among producer-feeder panelists who stressed the need for sustainability. She said her family follows the motto, “Take care of the land, take care of the cattle and take care of the people.”

Her strong beliefs have led to her current position as chair of the prestigious U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB). Panel member Jake Cowen, whose family runs a backgrounding program in northern Texas, said transparency is essential in helping answer questions from beef processors and retailers on products used to obtain and maintain healthy animals. Early record keeping and documentation of management practices “has changed our business for the better and made us more efficient,” he said. Ben Weinheimer, president and CEO of Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA) and also a USRSB disciple, noted that TCFA helped found the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program in the 1980s and ‘90s.

With BQA, producers and feeders improve animal health and are armed with data to help educate beef processors, retailers and consumers on beef ’s efforts to improve its carbon footprint. Finck represents Merck on the USRSB. She said the animal health industry helps educate producers through proven technologies and advanced products to improve cattle performance. Paul Koffman, Merck’s North American leader for livestock intelligence, said the company helped revolutionize digital technology.

“Merck has continued to make strategic investments to build a portfolio of products and solutions we think address things no other company can,” he said. From promoting better performance through implants, to faster and productive breeding through enhanced management of breeding and calving intervals, Merck specialists work with producers to improve efficiency. Its areas of expertise include: • Implants – With implants such as Revalor, cattle see better overall production. But there’s also an environmental benefit from implant usage, said Lee-Anne Walter, technical services nutritionist.

“If we lost implants, it would take 3.1 additional acres and 24 additional gallons of water to produce one pound of beef,” she said, noting these numbers came from data on 22 serial cattle harvest trials. Contrary to false claims, the amount of estrogen in a typical implant is negligible, compared to even a 6-ounce serving of potatoes.

“We all must try to help consumers understand the facts about animal health issues,” Walter said. • Parasite management – Parasites eat away at return on investment. “Iowa State University research shows that cow-calf producers can add about $274 in per-head value by using animal health technologies,” said Jacques Fuselier, DVM, technical services veterinarian.

“About $200 of that is from deworming.” Taking a fecal egg count reduction test (FECRT) will help gauge the success of a dewormer used in treatment. “You need a 90 percent reduction of parasites to know if the wormer worked,” Fuselier said. • Bovine respiratory disease (BRD) treatment – BRD has long been the costliest disease for cattle on feed, said Dave Sjeklocha, DVM, technical services veterinarian. One reason might be that weaned calves are heavier, in the 600-pound range.

“They often go directly to the feedyard,” Sjeklocha said. “But they’re still immature [and may face stress from the confined environment].” Antimicrobial metaphylaxis is an effective way to treat BRD. High-risk cattle are the most likely candidates for an antibiotic, such as Arovyn or Nuflor.

However, Sjeklocha stressed the need to better identify BRD-infected cattle to help reduce the sometimes-mass use of an antibiotic. • Whisper – This “veterinary stethoscope” enables cattle to be examined via artificial intelligence (AI) by scanning the lung while they’re in the chute.

They can be tested at processing when cattle arrive, or at the hospital pen chute, noted Jason Nickell, DVM, Merck director of insights and outcomes. “We can use AI to tell us whether to treat the animal for BRD,” he said.

“Whisper on arrival is leveraging the stress endured during the weaning/marketing experience to predict animal risk of developing BRD.” • Vaccinations – Tim Parks, DVM, said a veterinarian-guided vaccine protocol helps young calves fight off potential types of BRD by stimulating the immune system early on.

That, and a well-planned, value-added preconditioning program, can produce premiums when cattle are marketed. Parks said intranasal vaccines in calves only 7 days old could stimulate the immune system to fight off viruses like BRD. Calves are more likely to receive adequate colostrum and “can see a reduction in diseases 80 days out,” he said.

“We set calves up for success and reduce the need for antibiotics.”

Early breeding – Getting a heifer or cow bred and pregnant in the first 21 days of the breeding season normally pays off in a shorter calving interval, earlier conception, increased weaning weights, a more uniform calf crop and increased profit potential. Fuselier said estrus synchronization with one shot of a prostaglandin, such as Estrumate, helps producers manage heat detection to facilitate faster breeding. These products and services can help producers improve efficiency and profit potential, and bolster sustainability and transparency, Koffman said.

Lyons-Blythe said the entire beef supply chain helps generate the sustainability needed to help improve beef ’s carbon footprint. “Half of USRSB membership is made up of producers, feedyards, backgrounders and stocker operators,” she said. “Yet, we also have processors, retailers, allied industry and civil society involved – every sector and every player in the whole value chain – and they are all tremendously valuable to us. “It’s vital to have partnerships like Merck to help us do that.”