Extra vigilance before and during the calving season can pay off when it comes to producing healthy calves.
“Newborn calf mortality can have a significant impact on calf crop percentage and ultimately your herd economics,” said Dr. Steve Hendrick, veterinarian with the Coaldale Veterinary Clinic in Coaldale, Alta. Hendrick spoke about reducing disease in newborn calves in a webinar hosted by the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) in December.
A study on calf loss conducted by the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in the early 2000s found that the main cause of death in calves younger than three days old was pneumonia. For calves between three days and three months of age, the main causes were pneumonia and scours. Other causes were related to nutritional deficiencies, accidents and septicemia.
“If we’re going to stop neonatal disease, we need to start ahead of time,” said Hendrick. “What we’re doing today is ultimately going to impact your calving.”
He shared three broad steps to reduce disease in newborn calves: manage dystocia, improve immunity and decrease exposure. Though many of the strategies outlined aren’t new, reviewing them may help decrease illness in your calves.
Plan the breeding season with heifers in mind: “In my experience the dystocia rate in heifers versus cows is probably at least two to three times,” said Hendrick, who advises breeding heifers two to three weeks earlier than the rest of the herd. This allows producers to better monitor them when calving, while also setting heifers up for future reproductive success.
Calve at the proper body weight: Hendrick recommends calving at a 2.5 to 3.5 body condition score for all females.
“We’re trying to target 85 per cent of what we expect that mature body weight to be, and what’s really important is not to get these animals too fat,” he said of the ideal weight for heifers. If possible, separate heifers and thinner cows from the rest of the herd to target their nutritional requirements during winter.
Know when to intervene: Be aware of situations in which a cow needs assistance calving, such as signs of malpresentation.
“If you see a cow that actively strains for 40 to 45 minutes with no progress, that is a cow that should be checked. Similarly, if 90 minutes have passed since the water bag first appeared, you should be checking that out,” said Hendrick.
Focus on dam nutrition: “I can’t stress how impactful it is on general immunity,” said Hendrick. Nutrition affects colostrum quality, the cow’s response to vaccines and the overall health of their progeny. Feed testing is crucial when planning your winter feeding program; use that to determine the supplementation and mineral program your herd requires pre- and post-calving.
Colostrum is key: Ensuring newborn calves receive enough high-quality colostrum in their first six to 12 hours is vital, as they’re born with limited acquired immunity and need the antibodies it offers.
“Approximately 10 to 30 per cent of calves experience what we call failure of passive transfer,” he said. Calves affected by dystocia, those with a poor suckle reflex or that have been chilled are more likely to experience this and need to be supplemented immediately with a commercial colostrum replacer.
Implement a solid cow herd vaccination program: Work with your veterinarian to create a vaccination program to help decrease pregnancy loss in the form of abortions or neonatal disease. Hendrick recommends vaccinating for IBR, BVD and scours pre-breeding, though waiting until preg checking may still be effective.
Choose the best drugs for newborns: If a vaccine for a respiratory virus is needed, intranasal application is best, as the antibodies in colostrum can bind intramuscular and subcutaneous vaccines. If a calf had a difficult birth, giving it a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as meloxicam, can be helpful for reducing any pain.
“If they’ve been pulled, they might be sore and this is something we can do to make them more vigorous,” said Hendrick.
Reduce density if possible: “The basic concept… is that infectious diseases are less common when cattle are spread out,” said Hendrick. “So whatever we can do to make that happen, whether you’re calving in wintertime or the spring, that’s going to reduce your disease transfer rate.”
If calving in confinement, he suggests moving pairs from the calving pen as soon as possible to a separate nursery pasture.
Consider biosecurity risks: If possible, keep wintering and calving grounds separate. Don’t keep sick cows or calves in calving pens; move them somewhere on their own to reduce risk of infecting the herd. If purchasing a foster calf, be aware of the vaccination status of the herd of origin, and keep the pair on their own for a week or two to ensure the calf is healthy.
Don’t forget the basics: There are plenty of everyday management practices to help decrease exposure, such as ensuring your cattle have enough clean, dry bedding. Changing locations regularly when feeding on the ground, being aware of drainage sites and removing snow from calving areas to avoid standing water when melted can help decrease the risk of scours.