Beautiful green pastures, breezes blowing through palm trees and a week-long cruise from Hawaii to Canada doesn’t seem like it could possibly be stressful. For humans, it sounds like a vacation. But for Hawaiian beef calves in their transition phase from cow-calf operations to feedlots on the mainland, being stress- and disease-free during this time is critical for their future health and success.

Tim Richards III, DVM, Veterinary Associates, Inc., Kamuela, Hawaii, says the fundamental goal of the Hawaiian cattle industry is to wean a 6- to 8-month-old, 400-pound calf that is healthy and ready to take on the stress of being transported 2,500-3,500 miles via an ocean voyage, trucks and/or airplanes. “My belief is that our ‘preconditioning’ of the calf starts with its conception, continues during the neonatal phase and carries on through its lifetime,” says Richards.

Because these young, lightweight calves have to be absolutely healthy and ready for the stresses and challenges ahead, Richards says Hawaiian producers have developed sound pre-weaning and weaning strategies to get calves prepared.

 

Vaccinating calves at branding time can help get them immunized early.

Over 3,500 miles east as the crow flies in the Kansas Flint Hills, Jessica Laurin, DVM, Animal Health Center, Marion, Kan., is working toward the same goal of developing healthy weaned calves for stocker or feedlot operations. Her target is a calf that gets sold at 650-850 pounds. One of her biggest challenges is the variability in vaccination programs among neighboring herds, fenceline contact between herds and subsequent disease as a result.

“Fenceline contact between a cow herd and neighboring production units becomes a large factor in what vaccinations are needed,” says Laurin. “This is an area of biosecurity that is important. I’ve seen changes from large pastures with only cow herds, to blocks of pastures with cow herds that sit between stocker operations. Stocker calves are brought into our area from over 20 states, which brings a lot of different viral strains to be passed around. Our cow herds have to be
defensively vaccinated to keep calves healthy.”

Laurin mostly sees respiratory disease in 4- to 5-month-old calves, and typically they are in herds that do not have a cow-vaccination program. “They also tend to have fenceline neighbors with groups of put-together calves.”

 

One of the ways Hawaiian calves are transported is in “cowtainers.” They must be broke to eat and drink out of bunks and waterers.

Southeast of Kansas in Mississippi, Marty Caldwell, DVM, Vaiden, Miss., says his clients’ calves born in January and February are usually weaned in August. One of his biggest challenges is a high-stress weaning period coupled with heat stress.

Branding and weaning programs
Aside from colostral immunity, branding time is usually the first chance to immunize a calf against disease. Richards says Hawaiian producers have two methods for vaccinating calves for the first time – a branding program or a brand/wean program. The branding program consists of vaccinations, castration, dehorning, deworming and branding at 2-4 months of age. This is then followed up with further processing at weaning time.

Because these Hawaiian calves go through Canada (see sidebar), they require additional vaccinations. At branding they get vaccinations for blackleg, malignant edema, Black’s disease, Clostridium sordelli and IBR/BVD/PI3 (modified-live vaccine). They are also dewormed. Two to three months later at weaning, vaccinations for these 5- to 7-month-old calves include an 8-way clostridial, IBR/BVD/PI3/BRSV (modified-live vaccine)/Lepto 5 and pinkeye, and calves are dewormed again. Richards says the addition of pinkeye vaccine is a relatively new component of the program. “This has been added in the last year and is currently only given at processing at weaning time, and appears to have substantially reduced our problems with pinkeye,” he notes.

 

Just-weaned Hawaiian calves will learn to eat out of a bunk for five to seven days and then return to pasture before being shipped to Canada.

Caldwell’s Mississippi clients usually give a preweaning vaccination consisting of a modified-live viral 5-way, 7-way clostridium, Pasteurella and are dewormed. “These calves normally do better than others, but it also depends on the herd’s immunity level.”

Laurin is seeing more of her Kansas producers willing to put a 4-way live or live/killed combination vaccine into 2- to 3-month-old calves. “It tends to shut down the sickness seen at 4-5 months,” she says. Her clients consider a 4-way (if calves are not under 2 months of age), blackleg or blackleg with tetanus and pinkeye.

At pre-weaning, calves get a 4-way, blackleg and Pasteurella dependent upon two scenarios: if the producer is able to provide the vaccination paperwork to the auction barn or seller and gets paid for it or if the producer retains ownership and cattle are custom fed.

 

Jessica Laurin, DVM, says unvaccinated neighboring herds and an influx of stocker animals from other states are a threat to unvaccinated animals.

If calves have had pre-weaning vaccinations, Laurin boosters them with a 4-way, deworms and implants. “I strongly recommend deworming any calf pounds or older,” says Laurin. “I have done fecals on 2-month-old calves and seen strongyle eggs present. It seems sensible with the reduced cost of deworming to deworm young calves if they are in the chute. It also makes sense to deworm a bred cow to reduce the potential of shedding intestinal worms to the neonate, just as I have dog breeders do with their females.”

In Hawaii’s brand/wean program, cattle are only handled at weaning, and the same procedures are done to them as the pre-weaned calves. “The difference here is that once the cattle are shipped to the mainland, they receive a follow-up vaccination series as their weaning processing is their first exposure to vaccines,” explains Richards.

Richards says the brand/wean program is a labor-saving technique for those herds that aren’t handled often, but for those producers who can gather calves twice, the branding and then weaning program gets vaccinations and boosters into the calves before they leave the island.

 

Tim Richards III, DVM, says nutrition, stress, immune function and performance are all tied together.

Pen and fenceline weaning
How your clients wean their calves may influence stress levels and susceptibility to disease. Laurin says some producers can make fenceline weaning work incredibly well. Cows and calves are on summer pasture, and at weaning time, calves are moved to a grass trap connected to that pasture. “If there is not a trap available, then the herd needs to be moved to the right set of pen conditions amply in advance, so cows and calves are calm and adjusted to a new home setting.”

Calves need proper nutrition for this to work. “Calves at weaning age are already getting most of their nutrition from the grass,” explains Laurin. “Bringing them across the fenceline onto a similar grass allows them to make the transition to grass consumption alone. The cows alongside the fence give them a contented feeling.” At this point, many of the calves have been eating alongside their mothers – learning to eat from the unrolled bale, fighting for the range cubes or they have been fed a creep feed – and the transition from grass, supplement and cow to just grass and supplement is smoother.

Laurin notes, however, that this system will not work with cows that are extremely possessive or have poor behavior. It also will not work well with calves that are not receiving adequate nutrition from the grass.

 

Marty Caldwell, DVM, says heat can be a major stressor to southeastern calves.

Caldwell says calves are weaned in pens for two weeks and bunk-broke at the same time, then moved to grass traps. “High-stress weaning can lead to immune stress and respiratory disease,” he says. “Environmental factors, such as heat stress, also affect this.” To offset problems, Caldwell’s clients try to eliminate heat stress with shade and fresh water, along with boostering the previous vaccines and adding antibiotics to the feed if needed.

Hawaiian producers handle weaning in different ways. Fenceline weaning isn’t common, mainly because it doesn’t fit most ranchers’ management or pasture configurations. The most common method is to wean and confine to a small area immediately after separation from the cow. A combination of prepared feed, hay cubes or pellets, in conjunction with plenty of fresh water, is kept in front of the calves. Loose mineral is also available, and some ranchers use molasses or protein blocks for energy.

This small confinement restricts the calves from walking too far while also bunk-breaking them, which in their case is important as during the upcoming trip to Canada and the continental United States, their only source of feed will be the cubes or pellets while on board the ship. How long they are kept in pens after being separated from their dams depends on how quickly they settle and go on feed, usually five to seven days. It’s decided on a case-by-case evaluation if they need longer confinement.

Laurin cautions against weaning and immediately shipping calves. “It increases the stress burden to the calf, especially when commingling is included. Not only is the calf learning a new feedstuff and adjusting the rumen microbes to that new feed source, but it is having to learn both a new environment and pecking order among unfamiliar cohorts.”

Both stress and exposure to disease have an effect on the immune system, and both can be mitigated by human interaction. “We know that severe stress for an extended period of time can have far-reaching effects such as poor response to vaccinations, thus more unhealthy calves, and poor performance on pasture and in the feedyards,” says Richards. “We recognize this and try to minimize its effects by adhering to principles that lessen stress.”

Post-weaning
Once calves are separated from their mothers, Richards says the target goal between weaning and shipping is 30 days minimum. “During this time, we do the best job we can managing the stress levels, keeping the nutrition in front of the animals while watching for any illness,” he explains. “The nutrition plane ties into the level of stress, which ties into immune function, which relates back to the animal’s overall performance.” Like many places with volcanic origins, Hawaii is notoriously low in copper and often selenium, and zinc often is in question, as well, and recently they have found a calcium deficiency that appears to be related to the type of grasses available.

Calves are turned out to pasture for the balance of time between weaning and shipping, for about three weeks. They again are offered mineral and sometimes molasses and/or protein blocks. The calves are monitored and checked for illness. Sick cattle are uncommon, and daily treatments are few and far between.

For backgrounded calves, once they are weaned, bunk-broke and showing an increased intake and gain, Laurin says they typically have a decreased incident of disease. However, many smaller producers can’t get paid enough for these calves at the sale barn to justify the feed and facilities of backgrounding them. “But, systems like Missouri Verified Beef can help those producers receive more money back because they own those calves for a longer period of time and are fed with other calves to create the numbers needed to reduce the per-head cost of backgrounding,” states Laurin.

Laurin likes to see a minimum of 30 days of weaning before calves go into a drylot and prefers 45 days. “We can reduce the days-weaning requirement for stocker operations dependent upon management ability of the operation, size/age of the calf, length of haul and time of the year in comparison to type of grass available.”

In Mississippi, calves are shipped to feedlots within 45 to 60 days of weaning. “If a calf is unhealthy, it is not shipped because it will not gain like its penmates,” explains Caldwell. “The stress at weaning can impact this from poor immunity and low-grade infections that show up in the initial feeding period to poor weight gains throughout the feeding period.”

Approximately 30 days after weaning, all of the health aspects of the Hawaiian calves come into play when they are ready to be shipped. Cattle are gathered and sorted into like-sized groups to fit into the “cowtainers” that will be placed on the ships. “All sick and any questionable animals are removed from the group,” says Richards. “Every effort is made to only ship animals that are completely healthy and free from any discernible disease.”

Realizing that the animals are going to be confined in close proximitiy for the next week or so, the concern for the individual animal’s health is also tempered with the concern for exposing the rest of the group to an infectious problem. “Remembering that the goal,” says Richards, “is to deliver a group of healthy cattle to the mainland, and decisions regarding the health of the group are always kept on point.”

Start with the cows
Keeping calves healthy during these challenging times goes back to having them healthy when they are born. And that goes straight back to the cow. Laurin has been working with her clients to develop good cow-herd vaccination programs. “I discuss how immunity works in a calf and the impact of the cow’s immune status prior to calving, colostral immunity and whether vaccinating calves at a younger age makes sense to that particular herd. Most of these producers are smaller, and by showing a large reduction in sickness from one year to the next through their records affirms their belief in the need to continue a vaccination program.”

Caldwell notes that outside of nutrition, cow immunity is the most important thing producers can do to ensure calf health. “New vaccine technology for fetal protection is instrumental in helping solidify herd immunity,” he says.

It is Richards’ firm belief that the entire herd’s health must be considered. “We have learned over the years that the more intensive we become with our grazing management, the more we need to put into our herd-health programs,” he says. “The healthier the cow, the healthier the calf. The chance of success for that calf increases, and the long-term yield is a healthier, more productive and, accordingly, more efficient herd.”

Why Canada?

You may wonder why calves get shipped from Hawaii to Canada and then transported back into the U.S. over the border. The Jones Act prohibits the transportation of U.S. commodities or passengers between U.S. ports on anything but U.S. ships. Unfortunately, there are no livestock transport vessels flagged as U.S. ships. Consequently, cattle from Hawaii cannot go directly to the west coast of the United States when using a foreign-flagged ship. Instead, they must be taken to a port in Canada to be offloaded and then trucked down to their destination.

Hawaiian cattle are tagged with a USDA silver tag prior to boarding the ship, and therefore are identified as U.S. cattle, so they are allowed to cross back in- to the United States from Canada. 

Immunology of the weaning calf

Mother Nature does an excellent job of passing down immunity to calves from their dams, provided that the dam’s colostrum is rich in antibodies, the calf gets it at the critical early hours after birth, and the calf gets sufficient volume. Jim Roth, DVM, PhD, Iowa State University, says the length of time a calf is protected depends on those factors. “The protection might last for six to eight months,” he says. “However, if the cow did not have antibody or the calf did not get colostrum, there won’t be any protection after birth.”

Getting good colostrum in the first place can be enhanced with good cow vaccination. Vaccinating the cow is very important for increasing her antibody titer. That results in more antibody in the colostrum, higher antibody titer in the calf and longer duration of immunity in the calf. 

Some practitioners and producers have seen illness in calves within a couple of weeks of vaccinations and some place the blame on the vaccines, but it’s important to understand immunologically what’s going on during those times. “Illness within two weeks of vaccination may be a coincidence,” says Roth. “Illness could also be brought on by stressors that occur at the time of vaccination, like weaning, castrating or dehorning. Stress can suppress the immune system and allow subclinical infections to become clinical. Vaccination itself is a stress on the animal’s immune system. Giving multiple vaccines at the same time, along with pour-on, implanting and parasite treatment, adds to the stress.”

In addition, he notes, exposure to infected animals when the calves are rounded up and confined for vaccination can result in clinical disease. “The incubation period for many diseases would result in illness within two weeks of vaccination. Vaccines take a couple of weeks to induce immunity, so they have not had time to protect the calf that is stressed and exposed to disease at the time of vaccination.”

Because of this, the timing of calf vaccinations is important. The immune response takes at least two weeks to protect the animal. If the vaccine is a two-dose product, you can’t expect protection until two weeks after the second dose. In order to protect the animal at the time of weaning when it is most vulnerable, it needs to be well-vaccinated at least two weeks before weaning. “Vaccines are tested and shown to be effective in non-stressed animals,” says Roth. “Vaccination at the time of stress can reduce their effectiveness.”

Vaccines and stress aren’t the only factors that influence the immune system for the good or bad. Vitamins and trace-minerals are very important for immune function. Often, the immune system is the first system impacted when an animal has vitamin deficiency or trace-mineral imbalance. “Their immune system can be suppressed, resulting in increased susceptibility to infection before other symptoms of deficiency occur,” adds Roth.

Roth sums up the most important points for optimizing the calf’s immune system at preweaning and weaning times:

  • Vaccinate at least two weeks before weaning.
  • Minimize stress at the time of vaccination and at weaning. Some stress is inevitable, but it should not all be piled on at once.
  • Avoid exposure to infectious agents from mixing and crowding animals.