Veterinarian John Peirce created a stir among cow-calf readers of BEEF magazine last fall when he chastised the job cowmen were doing in the health preparation of the calves he was seeing at AzTx Cattle Co. feedyard in Garden City, KS.

“Every pen of calves gives you a report card on its health-management background, and the grade is given in dollars and cents,” he told BEEF Senior Editor Burt Rutherford (“Are You Vaccinating Calves… Or Shooting Blanks?,” page 30, September 2007, BEEF). The grade Peirce was handing out that day was an “F,” saying that 80% of cow-calf producers — because of how they handle (or mishandle) modified-live viral vaccines — do a poor job of preparing their calf crops for the challenges that lie in their future.

The story back at the ranch, however, seems to be different, according to a survey conducted in December 2007 of bovine practitioners who are BEEF readers. Of the 50 practitioners who responded, most thought the state of today's calf health is actually unchanged or has improved over the past 10-year period.

These weren't neophytes with shallow perspectives, either. Almost 60% had 20-plus years of experience as practitioners, and another 22% had 11-20 years of experience (Figure 2). Just short of 80% of respondents were engaged in primarily the cow-calf sector (Figure 3).

Drought is a factor

I think there's a general feeling at the producer level that calf health is declining,” says Dave Sjeklocha, a feedlot consulting veterinarian based in Sublette, KS, with clients in four states — Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. But, he adds, that impression isn't one generally shared on the practitioner side.

He says severe and ongoing drought in some parts of the country could be gassing up the impression in producers' minds of a declining status in overall calf health.

“I think we need to consider the severity of the drought in certain areas of the country, particularly the Southeast and West. I know this year, for instance, most of our clients are feeding a high-risk type of calf, mostly coming out of the Southeast. And we've had a tremendous health problem with those cattle this year compared to even last year. But I think the problems could very well be related to the nutrition, or a lack of it, due to drought in the home areas of these calves,” Sjeklocha says.

Poorer body condition in dams not only impacts calf vitality, but colostrum quality as well, he points out. Plus, there's the added factor of a stable to shrinking cowherd that's aging and thus potentially losing some of its mothering capability.

“But from my perspective, I really don't see declining calf health except in these high-risk calves that we're getting into the feedyard this fall and winter from the Southeast,” Sjeklocha says. His Haskell County Animal Hospital practice typically cares for 400,000 to 500,000 feedlot cattle at any one time.

Dave Dargatz is a DVM and beef cattle specialist with USDA's National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS). He says much more will be known on calf-health trends in June when NAHMS rolls out the results of its Beef 2007-2008 Study. Based on data collected from producers in 24 states and representing more than 80% of beef-cow operations, it will provide the latest national estimate of disease prevalence and other factors related to the health of U.S. beef cattle (see “Study due in June,” page 8).

He does say, however, that respiratory and calving problems are the top two causes of non-predator death loss in U.S. calves weighing 500 lbs. and less, and have remained fairly consistent since 1991. In 2005, for instance, those two causes were cited in 27.7% and 24.2% of non-predator death loss, respectively. Next were unknown causes (14%), digestive problems (13%) and weather-related causes (10.2%).

Survey says

The BEEF survey of vet practitioners asked respondents if, based on their experience, had pre-weaning and post-weaning calf morbidity (sickness), and pre-weaning and post-weaning calf mortality (death), increased, remained the same, or decreased in the past 10-year period (Figure 1).

  • 51% of respondents felt pre-weaning calf morbidity had remained the same in the past 10 years, and 32.7% said it had decreased. Another 16.3% said pre-weaning calf morbidity had increased.

    Those citing an improved health status attributed it to improved management expertise, cow and calf vaccination programs, cowherd health and nutrition programs and use of genetics. Those respondents citing an increase in pre-weaning calf morbidity attributed it to substandard cowherd nutrition and health programs, inappropriate cow and calf vaccination programs and a lack of management and/or management expertise.

  • Similarly, 51% of respondents said pre-weaning calf mortality had remained the same over the past 10 years, while 38.8% said it had decreased and 10.2% said it had increased.

    Cited as reasons for an improved pre-weaning calf-mortality status were better cowherd health programs, improved management expertise, improved cow and calf vaccination programs, better cowherd nutrition and improved use of genetics. Cited as factors for increased pre-weaning calf mortality were poor cowherd nutrition and health programs, lack of management/management expertise, inappropriate use of genetics and inappropriate cow and calf vaccination programs.

  • Meanwhile, 47.9% indicated post-weaning calf morbidity had remained the same over the past 10 years, another 33.3% felt it had decreased and 18.8% said it had increased.

    Those claiming a decrease in post-weaning calf morbidity cited improved management expertise, cow and calf vaccination programs, cowherd health, cowherd nutrition and use of genetics. Those respondents indicating increased post-weaning calf morbidity cited cowherd nutrition, inappropriate calf and cow vaccination programs, substandard cowherd health and a lack of management/management expertise as causes.

  • And 44.9% indicated post-weaning death loss had remained constant over the past 10-year period, while 40.8% said they thought it had decreased and 14.3% felt it had increased.

Respondents citing a decrease in post-weaning death loss attributed the drop to improved pre-weaning vaccination, improved post-weaning management/management expertise and improved pre-weaning calf nutrition. Conversely, respondents citing an increase in post-weaning death loss cited inappropriate pre-weaning vaccination and calf nutrition and the lack of post-weaning management and management expertise.

“Veterinarians who said calf health was improving (and cited improved vaccination programs, recordkeeping systems, etc.) should be commended,” Sjeklocha says, “as they have apparently developed the type of relationship with their clients that most veterinarians strive for — becoming part of the management team.”

Also interesting is that the results were largely the same across all seven geographic sectors of the study (Figure 4). The Central and Northern Plains, the South and Southwest and the Corn Belt made up about 80% of respondents' locations, however.

Study due in June

While 50 respondents present an interesting snapshot and a suitable preface to this special issue on calf health, a full mural will be painted in June when USDA's National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) rolls out the results of its Beef 2007-2008 Study.

NAHMS was established by USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in 1990 to collect and report accurate information on animal health and management in the U.S. Since then, NAHMS has developed national estimates on disease prevalence and other factors related to the health of U.S. livestock and poultry. Participation is voluntary and confidentiality is strictly maintained.

The results help in setting research priorities and acquiring funding, says Dave Dargatz, a DVM and NAHMS beef cattle specialist. The results also provide an opportunity for educators to target messages to producers on issues that are evolving or poorly understood.

“It also gives producers, either in larger aggregate groups or on an individual basis, the opportunity to measure their herd and operational performance against the benchmarks revealed by the results,” he says.

To learn more about NAHMs and its bank of existing data, visit: http://nahms.aphis.usda.gov.