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Creating a healthy start is essential for calf health

Shelby Roberts for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 January 2019
Calves in the snow

Animal health continues to be a major concern for all sectors of beef production. As the saying goes, “You can’t get over a bad start,” and this holds true for calf health.

A bad start not only has negative health effects, but can also lead to increased treatment costs and losses in growth performance, ultimately reducing profitability. Many factors can negatively affect an animal’s immune system, including environmental conditions like heat and cold stress, poor nutrition and pathogen exposure.

Ensuring a healthy start for a calf may happen earlier than expected. Influencing long-term calf health and performance doesn’t begin at birth but, rather, with the dam. The good news is that there are simple management practices that can be implemented to help minimize calf sickness.

Dam nutrition and herd immunity

Meeting a dam’s nutritional requirements throughout pregnancy is key to setting a calf up for a good start. Research shows poor nutrition during gestation can affect calf growth and even how a calf will respond to stress and health challenges later in life. Dam nutrition not only affects calf development, but also colostrum quality.

Nutritional requirements change throughout pregnancy, with requirements at their peak during the final trimester and through lactation. The last trimester is when the majority of calf growth occurs, making it a critical time to ensure your herd’s protein, energy and trace mineral requirements are being met.

Trace minerals, though needed in small quantities, play important roles in immune function. Research has shown that trace mineral supplementation can positively influence colostrum quality. Colostrum, the mother’s first milk, is a source of maternal antibodies vital for calf survival. This consumption of maternal antibodies is called passive transfer.

The quantity of colostrum consumed is important to establishing a fully functional immune system. Just as important is the quality of the colostrum produced. Quality colostrum contains high concentrations of maternal antibodies, and more maternal antibodies consumed by a calf equals more protection.

Passive transfer is arguably the most important factor influencing early calf immunity, since it provides the calf with the same antibody protection as its mother. Failure to achieve adequate passive transfer increases the likelihood of disease development or, in severe cases, death.

Building calf immunity

At birth, calves have a functional but immature immune system. Immunity provided through passive transfer is only temporary. After a few weeks to a month, the protection provided by maternal antibodies declines, requiring the calf to develop its own immune response.

Calfhood vaccinations are a simple tool for inducing calf immunity to commonly occurring diseases that can appear throughout the beef production system, such as bovine respiratory disease (BRD) and clostridial diseases. Vaccination against the pathogens responsible for these diseases is essential to promote antibody production in young calves.

Vaccinations allow for the establishment of antibody memory cells, which can offer protection from these pathogens should they be encountered later in life, such as during commingling at the sale barn or at feedlot receiving.

Just as important as promoting calf immunity is the need to establish and maintain herd immunity to specific diseases known to challenge calf health. Herd immunity can be established by developing a herd vaccination program with your veterinarian that fits the specific disease challenges of your operation. Additionally, it is important to maintain herd immunity by vaccinating replacement heifers as they enter the cow herd.

Gut health

Traditionally, when discussing calf immunity, a healthy gut isn’t at the top of a producer’s priority list, and yet, scours is the number one cause of calf mortality.

Scours is the result of an unhealthy, inflamed gut. The hindgut is an ideal target through which to influence calf immunity, since 70 percent of the calf’s immune system resides within the gut. Alongside the immune cells, there’s a diverse community of both pathogenic (E. coli) and beneficial bacteria that reside in the gut.

Inflammation occurs when pathogenic bacteria attach to the lining of the gut and begin to colonize. Maintaining a healthy population of beneficial bacteria can help the gut avoid overpopulation of the pathogenic bacteria and prevent scours. An easy way to influence good gut health is through the supplementation of prebiotics, such as yeast cell wall products, to promote growth of the beneficial bacteria and support immune function.

Improvements in gut health enhance nutrient absorption, resulting in more efficient feed conversion rates, as a healthy gut is essential for a healthy calf.

Mitigate stress

Stress management is another approach to maintaining calf health. Calves that experience prolonged stress are more likely to become sick, as stress suppresses immune function.

Stress is inherent during the beef marketing system, including during branding and shipping, so preparing calves for such oncoming stressors is critical to selling healthy cattle. Preconditioning periods are an excellent way to prepare calves for feedlot arrival, by allowing them time to straighten out and get on feed before entering the feedlot.

In a nutshell, a healthy calf comes down to that old saying, “You can’t get over a bad start,” and to preparing calves for health challenges. Cow-calf producers hold the power to influence lifetime animal health. Luckily, a good start can be achieved by implementing some simple management practices.  end mark

PHOTO: Properly vaccinated calves have more antibody memory cells. These protect calves with early immunity and more protection as they commingle later in life. Photo courtesy of Alltech.

Shelby Roberts
  • Shelby Roberts

  • Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Beef Nutrition Research Department
  • Alltech
  • Email Shelby Roberts