When calves die in their first three weeks of life, the major causes are calving-related problems or weather-related causes (25.7% and 25.6%, respectively), according to the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) Beef 2007-2008 report.
But after 3 weeks of age, almost one-third of beef calf deaths are from respiratory disease. W. Mark Hilton, DVM, Dipl. ABVP-Beef Cattle, Purdue University, generally sees respiratory issues and summer pneumonia in calves between 2 to 4 months of age.
Hilton offers these management practices that can help prevent respiratory and other diseases in the young beef calf:
- High-quality and quantity of colostrum. Hilton tells clients, “If in doubt, milk her out” and give it to the calf. “We use the term ‘2 x 6 and 4 x 12’ to mean ‘make sure the calf gets two quarts by four hours and four quarts by 12 hours of age’,” he explains. A trick he uses with calves where he is unsure if it nursed is to give the cow 1cc oxytocin and milk out the colostrum. Tube the calf with two quarts and then separate the calf from the cow with a small gate (so cow can still sniff/lick calf) for eight hours. “Turn the calf with the cow and if he nurses, you are home free. If not, you have a ‘dumb’ calf that will have to be tube fed for some time.”
- Ensure proper nutrition of the dam. Hilton says body condition score (BCS) is another way to help ensure good colostrum and milk production. He suggests cows have a BCS of 5–6 at calving and heifers in BCS 6–7 on a 9-point scale. While a thin cow will still produce colostrum and milk for the calf, it may take her four to five months to come into heat and subsequent fertility can be severely compromised.
- Decrease dystocia. Use genetic selection to minimize calving problems. Calves born unassisted stand and nurse sooner and therefore have a better chance of ingesting an adequate volume of colostrum in a timely manner.
- Increase calf vigor at birth with improved heterosis. Calves with increased heterosis are quicker to nurse and also ingest more colostrum.
- Decrease cold weather stress. If you calve at a time of the year that calves have to be born inside you are increasing the chance of having neonatal disease. Calve at a time of year where calves have a better chance to thrive.
- Boost immunity to specific diseases. Be sure cows are on an appropriate vaccination program.
- Reduce pathogen load. Reduce the chance of introduction or carryover of disease organisms by at least using the concept of the Sandhills calving system (www.unl.edu, search “Sandhills Calving System”).
- Don’t buy disease. Hilton says to never buy a calf for a cow that lost her calf and never buy cow-calf pairs during calving seasons. “I have seen disasters with both events.”
- Minimize the chance of spreading disease. First-calf heifers do not have the breadth of immunity as compared to mature cows, so don’t calve heifers and adult cows in the same area.
Read a Bovine Veterinarian article on preventing respiratory disease in beef calves.