When I was growing up on our family farm, my father would have been embarrassed if the telephone rang during “working hours” and he was in the house. In his day, you had to be outside doing physical labor to really be “working.”

Times have changed. Today, most of us realize time spent in research and planning is as important as physical labor. In fact, the time spent on such tasks should reduce your workload later in the year.

With that as a backdrop, let's examine some issues to discuss with your family or crew in regard to having 100% healthy calves in 2006. Some research-based concepts for producing healthy calves can be transferred directly from research herds to your herd.

Eliminating calf scours

In 1995, Jim Clement, a North Dakota veterinarian, published an article on factors associated with calf diarrhea. It initiated a shift from identifying the “bug” to focusing on, “What is the largest risk factor for calf disease on our ranch?” As a result, great strides have been made.

Clement's work, and that of others, shows that in most cases, the largest risk factor is calf environment. Do your first-born calves survive the neonatal period with no morbidity, but later-born calves develop diarrhea, pneumonia or navel infections? If so, an environmental buildup of pathogens is the likely culprit.

“The solution to pollution is dilution” is a phrase I use with clients to sell the concept of spreading out animals as a way to minimize infectious disease. Much has been written about the Sandhills Calving System (see “Cleaner Pastures,” March 2005 BEEF), whose premise is if every calf has the chance to be born in a “clean” environment, the disease challenge will be minimal to non-existent. It's a concept that will work in any herd.

A practice that's received much attention since Clement's 1995 study is that calving heifers in a separate area from cows will reduce neonatal diarrhea incidence in both groups. Mel Pence, a Georgia veterinarian, also observed that wintering cows and heifers together was another risk factor for calf disease.

When first presented with this data, my clients weren't anxious to have another separate group to feed in the winter. But, as is often the case, an astute client came up with the solution.

In examining the winter rations for his open yearling heifers and his bred two-year olds, he found them to be very similar. By grouping open and bred heifers, he said, both groups get what they need and he doesn't have another group to feed.

The concept has worked well where we've used it, and I encourage you to try it.

Even if bred females and pairs are on a large acreage, environmental contamination can happen. Areas around the water source, feed bunk or hay ring can become a quagmire for calves. If you must feed in the same area, construct a firm pad so it doesn't become muddy. An option is to roll out hay on frozen ground each day in different areas.

Practice biosecurity

Practices to absolutely avoid during calving season are adding cow-calf pairs or buying a calf for a cow that lost hers. Producers don't intend to buy disease when they purchase new animals, but it often happens.

In one case, a calf was purchased to replace a stillborn calf, and the next six calves from this herd died of Salmonella. In all, the owner lost more than $3,000 in calves, and medication and veterinary costs as a result of that single purchase.

Another way to introduce disease is to purchase another farm's fresh or frozen colostrum. Such diseases as Johne's and Salmonella can be transmitted by colostrum.

Do you have purchased feeder cattle right next to your bred females or cow-calf pairs? If they share a water source, are in nose-to-nose contact or have their lot draining into the cow's lot, this can be a source of disease for your herd.

If you have bred heifers due to calve this winter/spring, I hope they're bred to known calving-ease bulls. Dystocia continues to be the No.-1 contributing factor to neonatal death loss.

I see too many herds where bred heifers and first-calf heifers with calves are kept in a very small area due to its proximity to handling facilities. It's nice to have heifers close to the barn in case of calving difficulty, but it's wiser to have them used to eating near the facilities and locked away the rest of the day. If a heifer needs assistance, she can easily be moved to the barn.

I encourage you to discuss your neonatal disease prevention plan with all members of your team. And be sure to let your herd health veterinarian review your plan for completeness. Remember that the environment is the key to disease prevention in young calves.

W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical assistant professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.

Keys to neonatal disease prevention:

  • Winter and calve heifers separately from cows.

  • Reduce contamination areas as much as possible, particularly in feed and water areas.

  • Don't buy pairs or calves during calving season.

  • “The solution to pollution is dilution.” Spread the animals out at calving time.