Angus at Work

To Treat or Not to Treat

June 15, 2022 Angus Beef Bulletin Season 1 Episode 10
Angus at Work
To Treat or Not to Treat
Show Notes Transcript

Metaphylaxis, or the process of treating an entire pen of high-risk cattle to prevent disease, is a pretty common practice in the feeding industry. It works. But with the advent of new technologies, and growing concern over antibiotic use in the industry, could targeted metaphylaxis become the new norm?

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Welcome, or welcome back, to the Angus At Work podcast. I'm your host Miranda Reiman. Today's segment features a little bit of the future, a little bit of what's already happening now as it relates to animal health, and a term you may or may not be familiar with, metaphylaxis. A few years ago, I was in the seats at the Feeding Quality Forum hosted by Certified Angus Beef, when I heard Dr. John Richeson speaking about the idea that sometimes the best thing we can do for a pen of high-risk cattle is to treat them all. Of course, with increasing public scrutiny at antibiotic use and the advent of new technologies, he predicted some advancements in that space in the coming years. Fast forward, I caught up with him recently to ask about how that was going. Have we made any progress? Here's our conversation. John, why don't you start out by just telling us a little bit more about yourself and your position you're in now?

Dr. Richeson:

Sure. Well, currently, I am the Paul Engler Professor of Beef Cattle Feedlot Management at West Texas A&M University. How I got to this point, I grew up in central Oklahoma and just grew up around agriculture and cattle in particular. Was into FFA and actually judged meats in FFA, and was lucky to get a scholarship to meats judge at a junior college. Transferred to Oklahoma State University, where I got my Bachelor's degree in animal science there. My first job after college was working for a major cattle feeding company in Southeastern Colorado. I spent a couple years with that company.

Dr. Richeson:

Decided to get my Master's degree at that time at Texas Tech University, graduated from Texas Tech. Took another job after that educational experience with the University of Arkansas and the Cooperative Extension Service there. Did extension work for about four years, helped cow-calf and stocker producers in the state of Arkansas with general management practices. Loved doing that, but decided to get my PhD at that point, and got my PhD at the University of Arkansas working in beef cattle health and immunology.

Dr. Richeson:

First job after my PhD was here at West Texas A&M. I've been here about 11 years and haven't left yet. Enjoy working here at WT. I teach, but primarily, I would say most of my time is spent on research. We have a research feedlot facility just east of campus, where we are constantly doing different nutrition and health and management research trials for various companies, or funding through the government or self-funded projects.

Miranda Reiman:

Excellent, sounds like it's a great facility to be able to tap into to answer some of these questions.

Dr. Richeson:

It is. Yeah. It's great to be able to do the research, to train graduate students and undergraduates at that facility. It helps me as a scientist to see those projects take place and develop and learn the results. It's really fun.

Miranda Reiman:

Excellent. Well, the topic that we're going to be talking about today is metaphylaxis and ways to perhaps more targeted metaphylaxis in the feedyard. Before we get into that discussion, maybe for those who are less familiar with the term, can you give me just a basic definition of what we're talking about?

Dr. Richeson:

Yeah. Metaphylaxis is the mass medication of a group of cattle with an FDA approved antimicrobial used to control bovine respiratory disease. We would typically do this in cattle that are at higher risk for a BRD outbreak. And because it's difficult to diagnose this disease, and because we found through research that this practice is so effective, we give every animal that's classified as high risk during initial processing might get an injection of an antimicrobial to control the disease outbreak.

Miranda Reiman:

Excellent. So definitely just preventative medicine in this case?

Dr. Richeson:

Exactly. Yeah. Targeted metaphylaxis that we'll talk about more today would be further refined at the individual animal level. We know that not every animal in that group that receives metaphylaxis needs an antimicrobial or benefits from that antimicrobial treatment. It's just historically been extremely difficult to know which animals really need it and might benefit from it, and which animals are going to go on to remain healthy and may not need that antimicrobial treatment at that time. The targeted approach really is using different metrics to evaluate BRD risk at the individual animal level rather than the population level that we've done in the past. It's a very important practice. That being said, it's important that we preserve the ability to use that, and hopefully try to judiciously use antimicrobials for metaphylaxis so that they remain effective, and so that we're doing what consumers are asking us to do, which is to be as judicious as we can in antimicrobial use.

Miranda Reiman:

Absolutely. I should probably back up one step for those folks who probably aren't as involved in the feeding industry. Just explain to me exactly what happens when a set of cattle comes into a feedyard. How are decisions made about antibiotic use and those kind of things?

Dr. Richeson:

Antimicrobial metaphylaxis is usually administered during initial processing in injectable form. There's certain antimicrobials that are FDA approved to do that. We don't do that to every animal arriving in our feedlot. We preserve that practice for what we call higher risk cattle. Those cattle would be cattle that may have been procured from the auction market system and/or may have traveled a long distance to get to the feedyard. They may be lighter weight animals. Several different traditional metrics that we've always used that we know are associated with higher risk for BRD outbreak. We'll classify a truckload or a pen or a lot as high risk and make the decision whether or not to implement antimicrobial metaphylaxis based on relatively limited information. But we know some information about every set of cattle that we receive.

Miranda Reiman:

So really based on history today, not necessarily biologically on that animal.

Dr. Richeson:

Correct.

Miranda Reiman:

And mostly on a pen basis or load-by-load basis.

Dr. Richeson:

Yes. Load-by-load basis or a group basis anyway. It's population medicine. Usually just group metrics. Not anything individual, but based on how the group was put together, purchased, and distance, and those things that I mentioned.

Miranda Reiman:

So if that's working fairly well today, but we're looking into the future as to maybe what could be different, why are we even looking at some alternative options to this method?

Dr. Richeson:

Well, we know that even if a group of animals is classified as high risk, very rarely or almost never would every single animal in that group become sick or ill with BRD. We are very confident that, within that population, there are certainly cattle that need the antimicrobial on arrival and benefit from it, and it probably improves their overall health standing by getting that on arrival. But there's certainly cohorts in every group that would've remained healthy otherwise with or without the antimicrobial metaphylaxis given on arrival. Are there different things we can do to take a look within that high-risk population and more scrutinize the individual animal and whether or not individuals do or do not need antimicrobial metaphylaxis based on their health risk?

Miranda Reiman:

If that's something that's being studied today, why isn't it already being implemented? What have been some of the barriers to being able to do that?

Dr. Richeson:

Well, it's very complicated. Anytime we're talking about biological systems, it's not easy. Right? There's a number of biological metrics that have been evaluated. There's other things, management type things, that we may know from individual cattle as well. But the big challenge, and really with metaphylaxis, you're trying to predict the health risk. You're not necessarily trying to diagnose. That makes it even more challenging, because based on a blood sample or their leukocyte count, or some sort of biomarker or microbiome or genetics, we're trying to determine whether that animal is likely to become sick three, four, five, six, seven days down the road. That makes it even more challenging to try to predict BRD outcome versus trying to diagnose it. So that's one of the major challenges is being able to do that, and doing it effectively, and also doing it timely. Any kind of test ideally would be chute-side and would not require a laboratory analysis outside of the feedyard, to where we have to run cattle back through a second time to administer antimicrobial to.

Miranda Reiman:

Absolutely. Has that been your team that's been doing some of that research? Tell me some of the work that's been going on in this area.

Dr. Richeson:

Yeah. Our research team has worked on it. Others have as well. There's a company, Advanced Animal Diagnostics, that has a blood test platform that evaluates fairly rapidly the leukocyte count in cattle, and based on research that they've done and an algorithm that they have put together, their machine is able to produce a red light or a green light, which indicates high or lower risk for illness in the feedyard at arrival. That's one method.

Dr. Richeson:

We've been doing some research lately and published an article recently, where the cattle that we get in, we notice that these are high risk cattle that we use for our research projects a lot. They're sourced from auction markets, from an order buyer. And we noticed a percentage of these cattle arrive at our feedlot with a preexisting ear tag. They have a tag in their ear when they show up. Some of them don't have a tag at all. Very clean ears. But we decided to look retrospectively at the health and performance of cattle that arrived with an ear tag versus those that did not.

Dr. Richeson:

Indeed, the cattle with an ear tag at arrival had significantly less morbidity, significantly less mortality, and significantly greater gain performance than those that did not arrive with the tag. What that tag indicates, it's simply a proxy for previous management. If I buy calves from an auction market and they have a tag in their ear, I know that cow-calf producer that originally owned that calf has at least taken the time to tag that calf. Therefore, it's probably more likely that animal's been vaccinated. It's probably more likely that animal has been on a better nutritional program, maybe had a mineral nutritional program. And so, the tag and arriving with a tag in cattle purchase from auction markets seems to be another way to predict health outcome.

Miranda Reiman:

That's pretty interesting to me. It's really like, you can look at biology or you can look at correlated behavior really, is what that is.

Dr. Richeson:

Right.

Miranda Reiman:

It was significant enough that you would say, "Hey, if they were coming into my feedyard, I'd use that as one of my tools."

Dr. Richeson:

It's significant enough, we use that as we randomize and allocate animals to research trials. We consider whether they have a tag or not and try to distribute those equally across the experimental treatments that we're evaluating to make sure that we have a fairly equal number of calves with or without ear tags at arrival across our treatments. Just makes for better research as well, because we know, at least in early evaluation, if they have a tag, their morbidity rate is about half as much as if they don't.

Miranda Reiman:

That's huge. That's really huge. Are there any of these methods that are further along than others or is everything kind of in the "we're trying it out and seeing what's working" stage?

Dr. Richeson:

Yeah. Certainly the commercialization aspect, the Advanced Animal Diagnostics QScout platform is fairly far along. They've done quite a bit of research and development for several years now. Merck Animal Health has the Whisper stethoscope system. That's really not a stethoscope anymore. It's simply a pad on a stick that you hold up in the same area of the animal. But they've tested and evaluated that at arrival processing as well to try to predict BRD outcome. That device listens to the lung ausculations, the sound of the breathing of the animal, and also considers heart rate and some other variables as well. Again, they've developed an algorithm to try to help the producer determine yes or no, should I give this animal antimicrobial metaphylaxis? Those two would be some of the commercial efforts that I'm familiar with addressing or trying to support this targeted metaphylaxis concept.

Miranda Reiman:

What will it take to have wide adoption across the industry?

Dr. Richeson:

Well, if the system works, I don't think you'll have to convince many producers, because if I'm able to refine which animals really need metaphylaxis, and let's say only half of those cattle really need it and half don't, that's obviously instantly a very substantial savings in drug cost for the producer. And there's quite a bit of money on the table to both pay for the test or the equipment as well as capture some savings by better refining antimicrobial use and reducing overall drug cost. So that's a great thing. It's also great for our industry from a sustainability standpoint and efforts to show our consumers that we are trying to find ways to reduce antimicrobial use in beef cattle production. It's a win-win for everyone I think, as this concept is further developed and becomes used more widespread.

Miranda Reiman:

In the absence of maybe widespread use of these technologies, are there things that we can do in the meantime, maybe just conveying information about sets of cattle or things that could help that don't require a technology even?

Dr. Richeson:

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, right? I still encourage cow-calf producers to do everything they can to precondition their calves if that's an option and if that's feasible, because certainly, when we talk about vaccinations, that's when vaccines, I believe, are most effective is when they're administered before the cattle are stressed and challenged. But those management things we do in preconditioning, like weaning at the ranch, castration, dehorning, those things that are stressful, are much better to be spread out and done at the ranch rather than after that animal has gone through marketing and arrival and transport in a feedyard.

Miranda Reiman:

Absolutely. If we look ahead, if it's another couple years and I think, "Gosh, I should check back in with Dr. Richeson," what kind of things will you be working on that you hope that you've solved maybe by then?

Dr. Richeson:

Yeah. I hope to see some randomized controlled research, more of it looking at this targeted metaphylaxis. Whatever it is we decide to use; whether it's the QScout or the Whisper technology, or an ear tag, or a rectal temperature, or a combination of all of them; randomized controlled research comparing targeted metaphylaxis to the traditional method of all the animals in that population receiving it, versus maybe also having a negative control or a group that's randomized to receive metaphylaxis at a similar rate of what the technology's saying that the population needs, so that we can understand and make sure that these methods are effective. If we're trying to target it, the health outcome of the group of the population needs to be equivalent to the old method, which is to give the entire group an antimicrobial. That type of research I hope will continue over the next couple years. Hopefully, there's more evaluation with the microbiome and understanding if microbiome signature may be correlated to health risk. On the detection side too, just further evaluating the technologies to detect BRD would be important.

Miranda Reiman:

You bring up a good point in there that the health outcome has to be similar, because the sustainability of it is not... If you end up losing more animals, you've used less antibiotics, but you lose more animals. You still haven't reached the end goal.

Dr. Richeson:

That's right. Yeah. That's another big challenge, because antimicrobial metaphylaxis on arrival is very effective. So you have to have a test that is very good at predicting which animals may not need it.

Miranda Reiman:

In closing, we've been asking people, since we know that the Angus business is a people business, the cattle business is a people business, tell us something good that's happened, whether personally or professionally, to you here lately.

Dr. Richeson:

Yeah. Well, I don't know if this is pandemic-driven or not, but I bought a bass boat and I've gotten into tournament bass fishing, which has been awesome. I guess a take-home message that I would say about it is it's so great to have a hobby outside of work, especially in the beef cattle industry. We're so passionate about what we do and passionate about beef production. But I do think it's really good for our mental health and everything else just to have a hobby, something outside of work to do. So that's been my good thing is I've gotten into tournament bass fishing, and I've really enjoyed it.

Miranda Reiman:

Excellent. I love that example. Have you had any luck at it?

Dr. Richeson:

We're doing pretty good. It's a club, and it's a tournament trail, and we go to lakes all through pretty much West Texas. Some of the guys in the club have been in it 20 plus years. Me and my partner, this is our first year. And we finished 7th and 11th, out of like 30 boats. So we're doing pretty good.

Miranda Reiman:

That's excellent. I guess if you've spent a day or a weekend on the water, you win no matter what.

Dr. Richeson:

Yeah. You win no matter what. It's nice to get a check to pay for some of the expenses. But it's what you win no matter what.

Miranda Reiman:

Excellent. Well, thanks again for joining us on today's podcast.

Dr. Richeson:

Thank you.

Miranda Reiman:

Thanks for listening today. If you want to read more about the technologies already in the works, read the February Angus Beef Bulletin article by the same name as this podcast: "To Treat or Not to Treat." Not a subscriber? We can change that. Visit angusbeefbulletin.com or grab the link in the show notes. Let us help make your Angus bulls work for you. If you like this show, or even if you've got some ideas for ways to improve, please leave us a comment, write a review, or share it with your friends. Until next time, this has been Angus At Work.