|Jim Rhoades, DVM
Few things you do have a larger impact on the success of your dairy than keeping your calves healthy. Even though the homework required prior to calving may be a bit longer than 24 hours, the first 24 hours of a calf’s life determine much of the future for the calf.
The relationship between calf diarrhea and inadequate colostrum is well established. However, understanding the impact it can have for the entire life of the animal may be something worthy of additional consideration. Focusing the required resources to ensure the first 24 hours after birth are optimized for calf health will pay it forward.
The impact of the events that surround calving are long lasting. Ontario dairy heifers from 34 farms were studied by the Ontario Veterinary College (Waltner-Toews et al). Heifers that were treated for scours were 2.9 times more likely to calve at over 900 days of age (30 months) compared to their herd mates, after controlling for the farm effect.
In another study from 1995(Wittum and Perino), including 263 calves from Nebraska indicated that passive immune transfer was an important determinant of health before and after weaning. Odds ratios comparing calves that received adequate colostrum versus those that were deficient were 6.4 times more likely to get sick or 5.4 times more likely to die than calves with adequate passive transfer.
Survival of the heifer during the first 180 days of life was also diminished in calves who received inadequate passive transfer (Robison et al). Of the 1,000 Holstein heifers in the study, 43 died in the first 180 days and 19 (44.2%) of these had the lowest levels of passive transfer. In a follow up study with the same dairy heifers (DeNise et al), 641 animals were able to be traced through the first lactation. A relationship existed with the calves that had the lowest levels passive transfer in the first 24-48 hours of life to cows that had an increased rate of culling in the first lactation. The reason for culling was most likely due to low production or death.
The relationships between inadequate passive transfer and poor performance are clear. Steps to minimize this are just as clear.
The calving pen is always a hub of activity and putting processes in place to ensure these heifers get a healthy start is critical. Getting all three legs of the success stool in a plan will help realize this goal.
- First, the cow must be in good body condition. A thin cow can be just as detrimental as an overweight one, so feed them right! Vaccinating the cow for the most common causes of calf scours will help her be prepared to produce good quality colostrum.
- Second, properly manage the calving environment. A dirty, pathogen rich calving pen can overwhelm the newborn before it has a chance for a healthy start.
- Third, being vigilant with colostrum management. Remember: Feed the proper volume for the calf’s size, and use colostrum from a single dam that is healthy and Johne’s negative.
Having a plan you have developed with your herd veterinarian and not allowing exceptions to that plan is key. The goal everyone should have is a healthy heifer!
—Jim Rhoades, DVM, Global Technical Services, Farm Animal Business Novartis Animal Health
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