Which diseases have the biggest impact on Australia’s beef cattle industry?

James Nason, 29/06/2015

Which cattle disease has the biggest economic impact on Australia’s beef industry?

A systematic review recently completed for Meat & Livestock Australia has calculated and ranked 17 diseases in terms of their economic cost to Australia’s beef cattle herd.

The report – A Priority list of endemic diseases for the red meat industriesranks various ‘priority’ diseases based on their cost of treatment and prevention and the production losses they cause.

The research involved surveys and discussions with a wide range of industry stakeholders from producers through to processors and animal health companies.

The report is the result of a project commissioned by MLA to fill a gap in current information on disease impacts. Its results will be used to inform and guide research, development and extension activities in future.

The report’s authors emphasise that some of the results are based on subjective assessments and the outcome “is more a qualitative ranking than an absolute measure”.

However they say that the report’s findings will help MLA to consider the most appropriate research, development or extension strategy to assist the livestock industries to better manage diseases.

The below chart shows how the 17 cattle diseases considered by the consultants were ranked in terms of their economic impact:

MLA endemic disease report cattle

Click on chart to view in larger format.


Here’s what the report says about the five highest impact diseases:

1. Cattle Tick

Total estimated annual cost: $161 million

Cattle ticks cause anaemia in cattle and are also the vector for three tick fever organisms in Australia. Cattle tick infestations impact on weight gains of affected cattle, on conception rates and devalue hides. Increasing Bos Indicus content is associated with higher resistance to tick attachment, but even within Bos indicus cattle there is a substantial variation in resistance, the report stated.

The use of acaracides to control ticks and quarantine measures to protect tick free zones contribute to the high costs caused by ticks.

The reported noted that an efficacious first-generation vaccine was available for a short period in the 1990s, but no new vaccine has since become commercially available.

2. Bovine Viral Diarrhoea Virus (Pestivirus)

Total estimated annual cost: $114.5 million

The various strains of BVDV in Australia cause conception failure, early pregnancy abortion and mortality of PI calves, of which approximately 50pc die by weaning age, while approximately 50pc of surviving calves die annually thereafter. The virus can also weaken the immune system and increase the incidence of infected animals contracting other diseases.

The virus is spread mainly by direct contact with persistently infected (PI) animals.

Costs associated with BVDV include prevention efforts through vaccination and culling of infected animals.

The report’s authors note that the real impact of BVDV exceeds the perceptions of many beef producers and veterinarians.

“Much of this perception is derived from the apparent low visibility of the PI mortality rate and impacts on pregnancy rates that have been reported in domestic and international studies,” the report states.

3. Buffalo Fly

Total estimated annual cost: $98.7m

The blood sucking buffalo fly can only survive by 10-40 daily feeds, and in strong infestations can average 1000 per animal. Impacts include welfare issues, weight loss in affected cattle and skin lesions that can effect hide value and suitability for export.

An estimated 70pc of cattle in areas affected by buffalo fly (loosely defined as eastern Queensland, northern NT and WA and north eastern NSW) have some form of prevention control applied, with costs comprising $1/animal/month on average.

4. Dystocia

Total estimated annual cost: $97.8m

Dystocia is most commonly due to foetal-maternal incompatibility – where the foetus is relatively or absolutely too large to fit through the maternal pelvis – often resulting from mismating (heifer too small, poor bull selection), overlong gestations and/or (most commonly) inadequate nutrition in growing pregnant heifers. The survival of calves to weaning following a difficult calving has been estimated to be 12pc less than calves born normally.

The costs of Dystocia are greater in the north than the south due to the more extensive nature of northern operations and the impact this has on the ability to effectively monitor calving stock. The estimated annual cost of Dystocia in the report does not include the use of selective genetics and better nutrition to prevent Dystocia because the benefits from these practices extend beyond just Dystocia prevention

5. Neonatal calf mortality of unknown cause

Total estimated annual cost: $96.2 million.

About two-thirds of reproductive loss in northern Australia occurs as calf loss within the neonatal period up to a week after birth, according to recent Beef CRC data. In southern Australia that number drops back to about one third reproductive loss.

The cause of these losses is largely unknown, the report states.

“The aetiology of neonatal loss in excess of ~5-10% has remained largely unknown in northern Australia, though recent research has shown the major risk factors to be behavioural, nutritional, managerial and environmental (Fordyce et al. 2014).

“Insufficient milk production and delivery and inadequate calf suckling are hypothesised to be how these risk factors mediate their effect.”

To read the full report on the MLA website click here

RELATED ARTICLE: Is the Johne’s pain worth it?


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  1. donald lawson, 09/07/2015

    what a waste
    snake bite , road kill and heads stuck in trees kill more cattle than BJD , THA AUSTRALIAN JOHNES ALLIANCE was givern this evidence 10 years ago

    . the draconian johns policies implemented to keep incompetent d. of ag vets in a job have resulted in more suicides by farmers than possibly deaths OF CATTLE from BJD .


  2. Doug Miles, 01/07/2015

    The BJD saga has been one of the great industry catastrophes of recent times. On one hand you have an insipid AGFORCE and an incompetent Department who have between them trashed a valuable market in the West for Queensland producers. Yet on the other hand we groups of producers who don’t want to see the protected zone removed as they are making a fortune at the expense of their fellow producers. Unity is a great thing in any industry. These producer organisations are supposed to represent their constituents. Aren’t they?

  3. Anita Lethbridge, 01/07/2015

    The first disease I wanted to check out was BJD and it came as no surprise to find it in 17th place. Just proves that the ridiculous stand that the DPI and AgForce has taken is a sad indictment on both these parties. The situation should be remedied immediately as even though on the graph it is a tiny green slither, the impact of the regulations on the few operations that have borne the brunt of this stupidity is near a disaster.

  4. Tom Campbell, 30/06/2015

    Agforce is more trouble than they are worth

  5. Lee McNicholl, 30/06/2015

    Condo, BRD is a problem for yard weaners and of course in the feedlot sector.
    We DO have effective vaccines and if combined with backgrounding and pre vaccination programmes, the problem can be minimized if not eliminated. I have custom fed pens where the vet bill was only $1.50/hd with no mortalities. More feedlotters should pay premiums for preconditioned cattle like they do in the US.

    Thanks for your learned response, Dr Lee. Nevertheless, my understanding is that BRD costs the broader beef industry $60m a year (MLA’s estimate), so why isn’t it included? Jon Condon

  6. Lee McNicholl, 29/06/2015

    As a vet with 40 years as a cattle producer and who eradicated TB & Brucellosis across the NT and pastoral Qld from 1971-1988, I have consistently believed that the tools to eradicate Johne’s at an acceptable cost do not exist. Agforce’s collaboration with an incompetent DPI, resulting in severe emotional and financial damage to many Queensland producers is to their enduring shame . Qld producers should resign on mass if Agforce does not drop their insane policy. Fortunately I have never been an Agforce member.

  7. Jon Condon, 29/06/2015

    Interesting summary James – puts these issues into some monetary context. The one that does not appear on the list, that surprises me, is BRD – Bovine Respiratory Disease. Perhaps because it is confined more to intensive, rather than extensive operations? Can MLA provide some explanation?

    Editor’s note: MLA has since pointed out that the third last line of the ‘background’ section of the report, on page 13, makes a reference saying, “The report considers diseases and conditions predominantly impacting on the grazing industries.”
    A 2013 report prepared by Nigel Perkins provided up-to-date information on animal health of the Australian Feedlot Industry. The endemic diseases report considers diseases and conditions predominantly impacting on the grazing industries. This project encompasses Phase I and Phase II of the broader livestock disease survey for Australian red meat production (cattle, sheep and goats). Feedlots were not included in the survey or methods – as they were covered recently in a 2013 report prepared by Nigel Perkins, which provided up-to-date information on animal health of the Australian Feedlot Industry.
    MLA R&D project managers involved in the project have indicated that BRD is certainly an important feedlot problem and acknowledge the good comments on this issue.”

  8. Dale Stiller, 29/06/2015

    In 17th place is BJD. The related Beef Central article published today asks – Is Johnes’s pain worth it?
    The answer is quite simply, No.
    Not in the manner that individual beef producers have been made to bear the cost on behalf of the entire industry.

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