"Doc, my calves I just weaned are getting sick!"
"Okay, how did you wean them?"
"We gathered the cows and calves up on Monday morning. The cows broke on us twice and ran to the back of the creek twice before we could get them gathered back up."
"That sounds like a rodeo."
"Yeah, that was the day I called you up about my horse that tied up. Once we got them to the pens, we stripped the calves off the cows and hauled them to the starter yard 20 miles away."
"It got hot that day. Did you wait to work the calves?"
"We wanted to, but it was too convenient to run them through the chute since we had all of our help lined up. We have doctored 20, we have two deads, and it looks like I could pull about 40 more. I'm very disappointed in the respiratory vaccine we chose to use this year. I think it made them hot."
When faced with this kind of unfortunate situation, with animals becoming ill and possibly even succumbing to death, we often try to overanalyze these events and want to blame a bottle of vaccine or antibiotic for the poor outcomes. Many emotions take over. Confusion, fear and sometimes anger are the typical human responses.
Customers are confused because they believe they are doing everything correct. They are afraid of the financial losses that have been occurring, and then sometimes they are just plain mad at the situation. We've all been there.
Instead of letting anger control your emotions, I would suggest that you slow the game down and remember there are basically two reasons why sickness and death occur.
1. There is too much stress, causing a lowered/unresponsive immune system.
2. There is an overwhelming amount of bugs or pathogens in the environment.
The situation I described above is a classic example of an overabundance of stress in those calves’ lives. This occurs way too commonly in our industry. Heck, I’ve even been on one of the horses trying to gather cows like I described above. You have labor lined up on one day and you need to get everything done in that day because the cowboys you hired are off to the next place tomorrow. So you hurry and try to go too fast, which ends up slowing you down.
Once the calves are finally gathered they could be overheated and stressed. When this happens, they release cortisol which lowers their immune system response. Couple this with the ultimate stress in their life of taking them away from their mothers, and the calves will never have an immunological fighting chance, regardless of how healthy, shiny, fleshy or fancy they were the day before you weaned them.
Finally, processing them immediately after they are pulled off of the cow and while they are all worked up will only enhance this tidal wave.
This would be no different from gathering up a bunch of kindergarteners away from their mothers, running them about a mile, not letting them sit down for their mid-afternoon snack and nap time, and replacing that nap time with vaccination time. This is no different.
A different plan
As you are moving forward and planning your weaning, think about reducing stress in the calves’ lives. Reducing stress will offer more benefits than anything found in a bottle.
You can reduce stress by making a plan. Look into possibly building a good fence to cross-fence wean.
Don’t be afraid to ask the two cowboys who always bring the unbroke colts and bull whips to stay at home. We all know the cows always break loose between those two horses, causing the rodeo.
And, finally, let the calves rest before you work them. Allow them to get the balling and pacing done; give them access to food and water — with no mud around the tanks — before you put a needle in them. This will give your vaccine more mileage.
McCarty is a veterinarian at Ashland Veterinary Center, Inc., in southwest Kansas. He specializes in cow-calf herd health and feedlot medicine. He also raises Red Angus cattle.