The Six Pillars of Successful Calf Raising

Starting calves off on the right hoof can set the stage for a lifetime of health and productivity. ( Wyatt Bechtel )

Starting calves off on the right hoof can set the stage for a lifetime of health and productivity. Diseases such as bovine respiratory disease (BRD) greatly reduces heifer-raising success. Calves affected by BRD don’t grow as fast as their herdmates, are older at first calving and have an increased risk of being culled before the end of their first lactation.

So, what are some ways producers can avoid BRD and efficiently raise high-quality animals? Dr. Curt Vlietstra, professional services veterinarian with Boehringer Ingelheim, offers six management pillars that can contribute to the success of young calves and the prevention of BRD:

Pillar One: Nutrition

  • Colostrum – “Calf health starts with good colostrum before anything else,” remarked Dr. Vlietstra. “It’s excellent BRD insurance.” Calves should receive 4 quarts of colostrum immediately after birth and a second feeding eight hours later.
  • Consistent feedings – A structured feeding schedule, in which the calf is fed at the same time every day, reduces stress and improves average daily gain (ADG).
  • Monitoring growth – Keeping track of ADG helps producers ensure their calves are healthy and on schedule to be bred on time.

Pillar Two: Housing

“I’ve seen calves raised successfully in a variety of housing situations,” said Dr. Vlietstra. “Much of that success comes down to good management.”

  • Bedding – An ample supply of dry, clean bedding promotes calf comfort and decreases the risk of disease contraction.
  • Stocking density – Producers can reduce the risk of stress and the spread of disease by refraining from overcrowding calves and providing them with enough space to eat.
  • Air quality – Maintaining proper ventilation keeps calves from inhaling dust and harmful BRD-causing pathogens.
  • Weather protection – A calf’s immune system can become compromised when exposed to dramatic weather fluctuations. Facilities should have the capacity to keep calves protected from the elements and temperature changes.

Pillar Three: Hygiene

“Proper hygiene is essential to keep bacteria concentrations at bay,” Dr. Vlietstra stressed. “If employees are managing the calves, make sure to clearly post protocols and ensure they are well trained.” Individual pens should always be sanitized before a new calf enters the pen. Milk, dry feed and water sources should be cleaned routinely. Protein-residue swabs and the adenosine triphosphate (ATP) test luminometer are helpful tools to monitor the cleanliness of feeding equipment such as bottles, nipples and tube feeders.

Pillar Four: Diagnostics

Early diagnosis of BRD can be challenging for producers, but it’s essential to stop the spread. A scoring chart can be used to identify BRD and its severity, and also to help producers decide if action should be taken.Dr. Vlietstra also recommends testing calves. “A transtracheal wash or a pharyngeal swab is relatively un-invasive, and helps producers detect pathogens early,” he said. “It’s better than the alternative of submitting tissue from already dead calves.”

Pillar Five: Record Keeping

Treatment records can help producers keep track of disease incidence and in making culling decisions. “Any animal that’s been treated multiple times for respiratory disease before breeding age would be a good candidate to be culled,” stated Dr. Vlietstra. “Ideally, producers would be recording cases of BRD on a computer as soon as the event occurs.”

Pillar Six: Vaccination

Before birth, producers can protect the calf by vaccinating the dam. “Certain vaccines given to cows later in gestation are going to stimulate an immune response that will provide pathogen protection in the colostrum,” Dr. Vlietstra explained. “If the colostrum is harvested and fed correctly, we can pass along some of that protection to the calf.”

Weaning is the highest-risk period for BRD. “Calves are likely experiencing stress from diet changes while learning to commingle with other animals,” he continued. “At the same time, pathogen protection from the colostrum is declining.” A recent survey found that nearly 30 percent of producers wait to vaccinate until weaning, but that may be too late. “Vaccinating calves against respiratory disease before weaning with a modified-live virus vaccine gives calves the opportunity for their immune systems to work at optimum levels, and can help to keep the calf protected,” Dr. Vlietstra added.

Stressors like shipping, extreme weather changes and dehorning can weaken the immune system, allowing BRD to trigger a respiratory infection. When calves are faced with an upcoming stressful situation, Dr. Vlietstra recommends a single-dose antibiotic treatment.

“Make sure you’re not using vaccines as a temporary fix for a larger issue,” he concluded. “No vaccine can replace good management practices. Producers should work with their veterinarian to develop a vaccination program tailored to their environmental conditions and herd goals.”

 

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