Cattle are innately masters at hiding sickness. Whenever they think they are being observed, they will perk up and look more alert by keeping their ears up. Cattle will also bunch with a group of animals to mask what we consider to be the clinical signs of illness, particularly bovine respiratory disease (BRD).
We have long been comfortable with thinking that a sick calf will drop their ears and head, hang back from the rest of the group and not come to feed or water. What we are now realizing is that sick cattle will mimic the overall herd’s behavior. They’ll come to water and feed. They might not spend a lot of time there, but they will still come. They will also remain close to other animals. This is all part of masking the effect of BRD and trying to remain invisible to predators. This process begins about two days before a good observer of cattle can pick them out.
Recently, Brad White and David Renter of Kansas State University conducted research that shows changes in social behaviors of cattle with regard to illness. They focused on successful pulls related to the treatment of BRD. They estimate that pen riders are about 60 percent effective in identifying sick cattle, which means we’re overlooking a lot of cattle until they are already in an advanced disease state. Or we’re missing them entirely, and they heal up on their own. Bottom line, we do the best we can, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to identifying sick cattle.
In the end, time becomes money. If a producer isn’t effectively detecting disease in his cattle early, the operation will pay – in the amount of medicine needed for treatment and in the damage done to the lungs of cattle