Vet's Opinion

Environment Is Critical In Preventing Neonatal Calf Disease

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Calves born later in the calving season are at higher risk simply due to the buildup of organisms in the environment as the calving season progresses.

We’ve all heard the old adage that “the three most important things about real estate are location, location, location.” If I could propose a new quote on neonatal calf disease, it would be: “The three most important things about prevention of neonatal calf disease are environment, environment, environment.”

We can spend a lot of time and money chasing the “bugs” that are associated with baby calf diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia, but the reality is the treatment for most of the diseases are the same no matter the cause. Calves with scours require fluid therapy, either orally or intravenously depending on severity. It really makes little difference which bug is involved, especially if the calf is in the typical 7- to 20-day age range for calf scours. Antibiotics may also be prescribed depending on the physical examination findings of the herd health veterinarian.

There are many oral fluid products on the market, and some are superior to others. Check with your herd health veterinarian to see which brands they recommend. There is no reason to use an inferior product on a calf that has a value of more than $600 just to get him on the ground. Most of these products don’t have an expiration date; as long as they are kept in a cool, dry place, they will be good. I encourage all my producers to have a few packs of electrolyte solution on hand just in case they are needed.

Calves with pneumonia need to have a physical exam that includes a rectal temperature and auscultation (listening to the internal sounds of the body with a stethoscope) of the lungs. An appropriate antibiotic should have good success if the calf is diagnosed and treated early in the course of disease.

Getting back to my original point about the calf’s environment, prevention of neonatal disease is all about the environment. Calves born later in the calving season are at a much higher risk of any neonatal disease simply due to the buildup of disease organisms in the environment as the calving season progresses.

Much has been written about the Nebraska Sandhills Calving System, and its success is unequivocal. The concept is perfectly aligned with the goal of calving in a “clean” environment. I have had numerous clients lament that they don’t live in Nebraska’s Sandhills, but the key is not the sand; it is the system.

A Closer Look: Sandhills Calving System Aids In Fighting Scours

Under the Sandhills Calving System, cows calve for a couple of weeks in the first location. The cows with baby calves stay where they gave birth, but those yet to calve are moved to new ground where no cows have been for a few months. This allows new calves to begin life in a cleaner environment.

To make this plan even better yet, calve the first-calf heifers separately from the cows. Heifers don’t have the extent of immunity to disease that cows do; thus, calves from heifers are more susceptible to disease. There’s no need to have an extra lot for these first-calf heifers; just put the heifers ready to calve with the yearling heifers as both groups require similar nutrition.

Other environmental prevention suggestions are:

  • Winter feeding and calving areas need to be different areas.
  • Winter your heifers separately from the cows.
  • Calve your cows at a time of the year where environmental challenges are minimal.
  • Don’t bring a calf from another environment to graft onto a cow at your farm or ranch.
  • Don’t bring in cow-calf pairs from another environment onto your farm or ranch during calving season.
  • Eliminate mud/manure build-up typically around feeding/watering areas.
  • Keep cow-calf pairs out of the barn. Calf shelters can be a positive, but cows need to stay outside.

If prevention of neonatal disease is your goal, remember environment, environment, environment.

W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University.

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Dave Sjeklocha, DVM, is operations manager of animal health and welfare for Cattle Empire, LLC, Satanta, KS.

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Mike Apley, DVM, PhD, is a professor in clinical sciences at Kansas State University in Manhattan.

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