Focus on Gut Health and Immunity of Cattle

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The Veterinary Feed Directive will be fully implemented in January of 2017. We will still have antibiotics for the prevention and treatment of disease but with added paper work and expense. Therefore, it will be important to focus on gut health and immunity of cattle. An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of treatment. Prevention of sick cattle requires reducing nutritional, environmental and social stress that increase the animal’s vulnerability to disease.


Increased Focus on Prevention  

Clinical disease is when a pathogen enters the body and causes sickness. This article will focus on one route for pathogens to enter the body. Below are a list of questions or observations that focus on gut health and how important maintaining a healthy digestive system really is from an immune system standpoint. For a different perspective, let’s use basketball analogies throughout this article. Think of gut health as the point guard of the immune system. If your point guard is having an off night, things may not go well. If your point guard gets injured, you could be sick at the end of the game. A team has multiple players each with a specific but related role. We have an increased understanding of the complexity of the immune system and how specific nutrients may enhance the immune response.

  1. Defense wins games. Skin is the first line of defense in preventing disease and keeping pathogens out. How often does a simple scratch turn into a painful, festering sore? There is actually more exposed surface area in the digestive system than on the outside of the animals’ body. When you get down to the villi level, the surface area increases even more. An injured gut increases the odds that pathogens will enter the body.
  2. Clinical disease is a numbers game. There are always some bad guys, it is just a matter of keeping them under control by limiting their numbers and maintaining a strong immune system defense. What if basketball had a penalty box like hockey? Christian Laettner in a penalty box would have changed several games. Any injury or insult to the digestive system can shift the balance toward more bad bugs. Are there nutritional tools and management changes we can make to decrease the pathogen load of our beef cows and calves?
  3. An effective offense takes a great deal of energy for the players and mounting an immune response is energy intensive for our cattle. Energy drain is a common observation when we humans are fighting a bug. The same holds true for our animals. The lining of the rumen and intestines is where our cattle absorb their energy and nutrients.
  4. A strong team is developed, must work together and basic skills matter. Having multiple All American players on the team does not guarantee a new banner in the rafters. From a cattle health standpoint, we need to look all the way back to nutrition of the dam during pregnancy. We will be missing the mark if we are focused only on today and search for a single magical fix. For calves, the basics of immunity is maternal transfer of antibodies in the colostrum. Improved gut health and a high plane of nutrition for the cow during pregnancy will have a long-lasting impact on calf health. Colostrum management can be the greatest area of opportunity for improved calf health.

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