Calf resiliency is at the forefront of every concerned cattleman’s mind the moment calves start hitting the ground — even if that thoughtfulness is only expressed by gruffly throwing the calf in a sleeve to be weighed, pumping it full of powdery milk and relieving it of some less-than-necessary genitalia. All is done in the name of care.
During a recent Kansas State Extension meeting in Fredonia, K-State Extension veterinarian A.J. Tarpoff led producers through the best ways to keep calves happy and healthy from birth to branding from a livestock veterinarian’s perspective.
“The way I like to present calf resilience is that it’s not just about vaccines and it’s not just about nutrition,” Tarpoff said. “All of those things come together to build resilience.”
1. Maternal care counts first
While diseases and genetic abnormalities are at the root cause of abortions in cattle, the majority of pregnancy loss issues can be eliminated with careful management.
“Diseases are one thing,” Tarpoff said. “But, there’s a lot of other things that are not necessarily infectious that could cause pregnancy termination or abortion.”
First and foremost is cow nutrition and overall body condition.
“Reproduction is a luxury. Maintaining that pregnancy is a luxury,” Tarpoff said. “First and foremost, if things get really bad, she’s going to protect herself rather than that pregnancy.”
Tarpoff also cautioned producers to watch their hay storage this winter. Coyotes carrying neospora bacteria, which in endemic in Southeast Kansas and can cause abortions in cattle, will often run across the tops of bales. If the coyotes defecate in the hay and that hay is then fed to cattle, they would be coming into direct contact of high levels of the bacteria.
Covering bales can make a big difference in this area.
Additionally, quarantining new animals in the herd, while time consuming, can make a big difference in overall herd health.
“If you purchase new animals while you have a lot of pregnant cows, it is a really good practice to try to segregate those new purchases for 30 or 40 days,” Tarpoff said. “If they they’ve been through a sale barn and they come from different areas of the country, different areas of the state, we don’t know what that animal is already been exposed to during stress.”
Additionally, orphaned calves bought to graft onto cows with lost calves can serve as a disease vector for all other newborns in the herd. If nursing a calf from a sale barn or even another producer’s operation, Tarpoff recommended separating the cow and calf from the herd to eliminate extra disease issues for calves or cows.
2. Colostrum quality, quantity and timing matters
“I truly believe that the closest thing we have to a miracle drug in the cow-calf industry is colostrum,” Tarpoff said. “Colostrum is mother’s first milk and it is jam-packed with ready-made antibiotics.”
A good rule of thumb most producers follow when administering colostrum to calves is to attempt to deliver it to the calf in less than 24 hours. In the later part of that window, Tarpoff said it may be too little, too late.
“When the calf is born its gut is permeable,” Tarpoff said. “Antibodies are very large cells. Those big cells leach across the gut lining and get directly to the bloodstream because that’s where they’re most active. Now, soon after birth, all of a sudden that gut starts to close.”
Tarpoff said absorption of colostrum antibodies is reduced to 50% in calves after just nine hours. So timing is critical to achieve maximum passive immunity transfer from the mother.
“Is that a big deal? Yeah, it is,” Tarpoff said. “Failure of passive immunity transfer is one of the biggest predictors of loss, sickness and death in those calves’ overall lifetime productivity, whether it’s going back into the cow herd, is a replacement or replacement heifer or bull.”
Properly using tubing methods with calves that need additional colostrum can make a big difference in getting the right amount of antibodies to the calf at the right time.
Tarpoff said it’s key to measure from the tip of the calf’s jaw to the end of their nose and then only insert that length of tube on the calf’s left side. The esophagus is on the left side of the calf’s body and placing the tube correctly can help prevent drowning.
“When they get the ball at the end of the tube put it right in the back of their throat,” Tarpoff said. “It produces an involuntary reaction and they have to swallow.”
Gravity and time letting the colostrum flow into their stomachs will do the rest of the work.
3. Know core body temperature and how to raise it correctly
Calving in cold weather was a serious problem across the U.S. in winter and spring of 2021. Tarpoff said keeping a rectal thermometer in the truck while checking cows can make a big difference in diagnosing and properly treating hypothermia.
“Calves are born with an internal body temperature around 101 to 102,” Tarpoff said. “If they are close to that range, up, dry and moving, feel free to leave them with their mom.”
In extreme weather conditions, if the calf’s internal body temperature ranges anywhere from the nineties to the mid-eighties, then, Tarpoff said there are serious problems.
Re-warming a calf too quickly can cause a surge of blood from the calf’s extremities to its heart, causing shock to the eternal organs. Slow warming techniques using a calf box, warm water or just circulating warm air are most effective.
“Warm water is one of the most efficient means to warm them up,” Tarpoff said. “It’s also one of the more dangerous methods.”
Tarpoff suggested starting with lukewarm water and then slowly increasing the water temperature over time until the water is around 102 degrees, which is the animal’s normal core body temperature.
4. Be serious about scours
“In the first 30 days of a calf’s life, the biggest issue we will deal with is scours,” Tarpoff said. “A multitude of different types of pathogens outside of salmonella are responsible.”
Most pathogens that cause calf scours are ubiquitous in the cowherd, Tarpoff said. While they don’t cause an issue for mature cows, they do circulate within the cow herd and linger to interact with more susceptible calves.
“Thankfully, calf scours is something we can manage our way out of,” Tarpoff said.
Separating older calves from the herd can be the easiest and most effective method for limiting calves’ exposure to the bacteria that causes scours.
“Older calves act as disease amplifiers,” Tarpoff said. “They pick up the bacteria at lower levels and then it has weeks or months to replicate before a newborn calf comes into contact with them.”
Tarpoff said moving shelters or feeding sites where cattle tend to congregate can also help spread pathogens across the pasture, rather than concentrating them at high levels in locations calves tend to frequent. Vaccinating cows against the bacteria that causes scours in the last few weeks of gestation can also help improve control.
5. Castrate as calves
In a survey of veterinarians from across the state of Kansas, Tarpoff presented that most recommend castration by cutting shortly after birth for the best overall recovery and immune response. If castrating calves after a few months of age or around weaning, the same veterinarians polled higher for banding options.
Castration before calves reach the sale barn or feedlot stages is absolutely critical to their overall health and value to the livestock industry.
“If they go to a backgrounder or stocker operation or a feedlot, just being an intact bull increases their odds of getting sick and dying by 150%,” Tarpoff said. “It’s extremely costly to the industry.”