|Kevin Hill, DVM
The difference between agony and ecstasy in a calf raiser’s life often hinges on the control of calfhood diseases, the most common of which is scours. Nothing is more emotionally and financially draining than watching the future of the herd develop diarrhea and die right before your eyes. Because the treatment of scours is difficult, labor intensive and often unsuccessful, prevention of neonatal diarrhea is essential.
To create and maintain a program of scours prevention and overall excellent calf health, one important principle must be clearly understood – successful managers of newborn calves must simultaneously minimize exposure to disease and maximize immune function.
Minimize Exposure to Disease
The viruses, bacteria and protozoa that cause infectious diarrhea are virtually everywhere on the dairy. Most of these disease-causing agents are spread through manure, so if you see manure, you see the enemy. A key to achieving optimum newborn calf health is to prevent their contact with manure, and other cows and calves.
Steps essential to minimize exposure are:
- Keep maternity areas clean. Don’t calve on manure! Remember, manure is the enemy.
- Remove calves immediately from the cow and the calving pen. Both are significant sources of disease for a newborn. Do not allow the calf to nurse for the same reason – mother’s teats likely are contaminated and will give the calf a good dose of disease with the first meal.
- Place the calf in a dry, clean, individual hutch. Do not allow contact with feces, urine or nasal discharge from other calves, including the last calf to use the hutch.
- Always use clean feeding equipment. The surest way to get calves sick is to feed them a dose of bacteria with every meal. Bacteria love to grow in milk media, so be certain to feed your calves clean, properly stored colostrum in bottles and buckets that are thoroughly washed, disinfected and dried.
Maximize Immune Function
Mother Nature has equipped the newborn calf with an immune system that is functional even before birth. If the calf receives the necessary fuel to keep the immune system running at high efficiency and immunosuppressive influences are removed from the environment, good health will win the battle every time. The critical steps to enable high immune function are:
- Colostrum, colostrum, colostrum. High-quality colostrum, fed in the right amount, at the right time, is essential. One gallon of colostrum fed as soon as possible after birth and another gallon fed six hours later is the recommendation for a 90-pound dairy calf. If the calf will not nurse that volume of colostrum, it should be fed with a clean and sanitized tube feeder.
- Monitor colostrum quality, as antibody content can vary greatly from cow to cow. Colostrum quality can be improved significantly by vaccinating the dam prior to calving so that she produces more antibodies against the bacteria and viruses that commonly cause scours.
- Feed calves for high performance. The immune system is driven by energy and protein. Therefore, if the diet of the calf is deficient in energy or protein, the level of protection from the immune system drops dramatically. Many 20/20 milk replacers fed according to label directions will not meet the calf’s nutritional and immune requirements, especially during periods of stress.
- Control BVD. This family of viruses can create immunosuppresion that opens the door for other infectious agents. Whole herd vaccination against BVD and rapid removal of persistently infected calves from the premises are essential for good herd BVD control.
Maximize immunity and minimize exposure at every opportunity. As you do, you will soon reap the reward of healthy, productive calves. Avoid the agony, and enjoy the ecstasy!
Dr. Kevin Hill is a technical services veterinarian for Intervet/Schering-Plough Animal Health. He lives in Utah. For more information, e-mail Dr. Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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