Regardless of the weather, market forces or calf prices, ranchers go to great efforts and expense to keep their newborn calves comfortable, healthy and alive, says Minnesota veterinarian Lynn Aggen. But with this year’s calves projected to bring upward of $1,000 each at weaning, some extra investment in calf health could pay significant dividends.
Disease prevention is more effective and less expensive than treatment. Research consistently shows higher rates of pre-weaning sickness and death loss in calves that do not receive passive immunity from their dams. The impacts also extend beyond weaning, with immune-deficient calves experiencing more sickness and poorer performance through backgrounding and finishing stages.
Begin with prevention
Prevention is more effective and less expensive than treatment, and Aggen says prevention of calfhood disease begins with transfer of antibodies from the cow to the calf. Actually, he says, prevention begins even earlier, with pre-calving vaccination of cows to build their immunity and boost the concentration of antibodies in their colostrum. A precalving scour vaccine, along with a seven-way clostridial vaccine administered to heifers and cows about eight weeks prior to calving, provide cost-effective protection against a broad range of pathogens that cause calf scouring and other calf diseases, Aggen says.
In calving pastures, Aggen says “dilution is the solution” for minimizing calf scours. He suggests frequently moving pregnant cows away from cow-calf pairs, using some variation of the “Sandhills Calving System” to reduce exposure to pathogens. The Sandhills system involves setting up about eight calving pastures and moving cows that have not yet calved to a fresh, clean pasture every week, leaving cows with new calves in each pasture as they go. Although all producers might not have the space or facilities to use the full system, Aggen says they can benefit by moving cows away from potentially contaminated pasture as much as possible.
At calving, Aggen stresses that getting that high-quality colostrum into the calf — plenty of it and as early as possible — becomes the No. 1 priority. Allow the calf to nurse before applying ear tags, weighing or any other task. South Dakota State University Extension veterinarian Russ Daly notes that a calf’s ability to absorb colostral antibodies starts to decline shortly after birth. Within 24 hours, the calf is essentially no longer able to get the benefit of the antibodies in colostrum. Ideally, calves should fill up on colostrum within the first two to three hours, with another feeding four to six hours later.