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Should Feeder Calves be PI Tested?

In recent years, Southeastern producers have asked whether testing for Persistently Infected (PI) Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD) virus generates a premium for feeder cattle. The answer likely depends on certain factors. For example, if a group of feeder cattle is born and raised on the same ranch (home-raised), and the producer has a good vaccination program, then the producer might not PI test them before marketing. The risk of PI’s is likely much lower for cattle coming from a closed herd. Co-mingled cattle are likely to have a higher risk of being PI-positive. Backgrounding and stocker operations commonly  source calves from multiple cow-calf operations and multiple groups at auctions. However, co-mingled calves are perceived by buyers to be of higher risk than single-owner calves. So, sellers can use PI testing as a marketing tool to lower the risk perception of the cattle they are selling. 

A recent University of Tennessee study examined price determinants at the Lower Middle Tennessee Cattle Association (LMTCA) Video Board Sale from 2015-2020. Figure 1 contains the annual percentage of PI tested lots sold for a for this sale. This trend has been seen in other value added sales throughout the Southeast. 

Figure 1. Annual Percentage of PI Tested Lots Sold

PI tested lots were found to generate a $1.19/cwt premium. These lots included cattle that sold from North Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee. While there were home raised lots that were tested, majority of the tested lots were co-mingled lots. On average, cattle weighed 820 pounds in the study, generating a potential premium just under $10 per head. The cost of PI-testing varies by location, volume, and test type. In general, the test costs around $4-8 per head. However, it is important to note the test cost mentioned here does not include additional time spent, facilities utilized working cattle for testing purposes, or revenue loss from the proper disposal of cattle that test positive. 

While there are some costs and risks associated with testing for PI-BVD, selling a “PI tested” lot does generate a premium. It does this by letting the buyer know that the cattle are guaranteed PI free and healthy, which mitigates risk for the buyer. These advantages are especially beneficial for co-mingled lots. 

Charley Martinez

Assistant Professor
The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture

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