Calves are Born Healthy. People Make them Sick.

We often blame diseases for our own shortcomings when it comes to raising calves. Since calves are born healthy, it’s on us to make sure they stay that way, so why do we often fail to prevent scours and pneumonia in these babies? Let’s look at some of the obvious and subtle challenges, as well as their solutions.

Modern production systems – First, let’s consider what happens in nature. Let’s use buffalo calves as an example. These calves are born in late Spring when temperatures are moderate, food availability is good, and pastures are “clean.” Moreover, cows usually separate from the herd during parturition. All this leads to calves being born into a clean, normothermic environment exposed only to one other animal, their mom.

In modern production systems, calves are born in the same location multiple times per day. So the cards are stacked against calf health from Day 1. It’s possible to make these systems work, but attention to detail is non-negotiable if you’re going to keep neonatal calf diseases at bay.

Lack of cleanliness -With a high-traffic calving system, it is very difficult to have each calf born into the ideal environment. Stay diligent, but also realize that your system is likely to fail at times.

Failure of passive transfer = weak susceptible calves – Calves need colostrum early and the right amounts – about 10% of BWT in the first 6 hours. This is a hard-and-fast rule, and it’s not just about Immunoglobulin G (IgG) delivery and proper total protein levels. Colostrum is pivotal in establishing the microbiome in neonatal calves. It provides nutrition, cytokines, lactoferrin, and more. It really is magical stuff, but it needs to be very clean and at the right temperature and fed at the right time in the right amounts to work its magic.

Starvation – This is a subtle challenge, and I know it’s a bit harsh, but in many cases, it is still true. Feeding 2 quarts of milk replacer twice/day to a Holstein calf is barely enough to maintain its body weight.

If we don’t provide enough calories, we starve calves’ immune systems and make them more susceptible to disease. Three to four quarts twice each day is much closer to the amount required to sustain growth and health. Yes, it will cost you up front, but the ROI is there in pounds of gain, overall calf health, and future production of the animal once it enters lactation.

Antibiotic usage – Antibiotic usage leads to negative changes in the gut and lung microbiome. It is still common for calves to get medicated milk replacers and/or treated with antibiotics as soon as there are signs of scours.

It has been shown in multiple studies that feeding antibiotics will change and weaken the microbiome, which leads to a weakening of mucosal immunity and can render the “kill zone” ineffective. This predisposes calves to pathogens easily getting past the mucosal barrier and causing systemic disease. If pathogens, especially viruses, gain access and are present in immune cells, they can travel throughout the body. This explains why so many calves with scours also break with pneumonia later on.

People movement – We the people make calves sick, but how? On a basic level, we are terrible at cleaning ourselves in between handling different calves. It’s not malicious behavior; it’s a lack of awareness. This leads to very effective disease transmission, especially when it comes to viral diseases. Calf trainers and calf doctors must wear plastic clothing covers that can easily be sprayed down with disinfectants in between calves.

Solving scours and pneumonia – Focus on the immune system and people development. Spending the money up front pays you back in the long run. More specifically, solutions begin with IgGs.

Know your IgGs
• Colostrum should be fed at 10% of bodyweight in the first 6 hours after birth. Provide a second feeding 12 to 24 hours later.
• Transition milk has a lot of antibodies in it and should be used where possible.
• Specific antibodies: Because we expose these calves to much higher pathogen loads than what they would be exposed to in nature, we need to provide additional targeted antibodies against diseases like E-coli K99, coronavirus and especially rotavirus.

Feed the immune system – Feed lots of high-quality milk or milk replacer to your calves, 3 to 4 quarts twice a day. If you can feed 3 times/day, that’s even better yet.

Manage the microbiome – You must keep the “kill zone” alive. Colostrum and diet are pivotal in microbiome development, and the microbiome is pivotal in the local immune development and function. The microbiome that lives at the mucosal level, called the kill zone, needs to be balanced to support the gut’s primary defense. The kill zone is the mucous layer that covers the enterocytes (cells that make up the gut lining) and is filled with immune cells that fight off pathogens (IgG, IgM, IgE, white blood cells, etc.) If the microbiome becomes unbalanced, that mucous layer becomes thinner and less effective.

Antibiotic administration – Antibiotics will change the microbiome and render it imbalanced. Prophylactic antibiotic therapy should be replaced by probiotics. If antibiotic treatments are warranted, they should be accompanied by probiotic treatments to help calves re-establish a healthy microbiome during and after treatment.

Proactive vaccination – Administering intranasal respiratory vaccines early in life builds mucosal immunity and can be effective in providing respiratory protection. Injectable vaccines should be a part of a good prevention protocol but should be used once calves are age 3 weeks or older.

People development – Train people to fully buy into cleanliness by establishing a culture of cleanliness, and lead by example. Keep all things on the farm organized and clean – your truck, your office, your entire operation. Make maternity and calf crews calf champions. Don’t allow for compromises. Everything from calving pens to calf transportation, colostrum harvest, handling and administration needs to be very clean. Cleanliness is vital in the first two weeks of life.

Make it real for them. Establish with your employees that cleanliness equals healthy calves, and sick and dead calves means we are the cause for that disease and mortality.