Healthy beef calf programs (Proceedings)


Health management can be a critical component in adding value to calves. Whether calves are sold at weaning, after pre-conditioning or backgrounding or retaining ownership through the feeding phase a health management program is important.

Health management can be a critical component in adding value to calves. Whether calves are sold at weaning, after pre-conditioning or backgrounding or retaining ownership through the feeding phase a health management program is important. The biggest increase in value for the beef cattle operation is having more calves alive at the end of the production phase.

There have been several studies in the last ten years that have shown the benefits of good colostral immunity not only improves the health of neo-natal calves but can have impacts all the way through the feeding period. Sufficient pre-partum nutrition is important for calves to achieve adequate passive transfer of immunoglobins after birth. In order for cows to produce quality colostrum they need sufficient protein and energy during the last 30 days of gestation when colostrum is beginning to be made. Additionally, sufficient nutrition pre-partum is important for the calf also. Proper energy and protein levels are vital for calf vigor after calving. Calves from energy or protein restricted dams during gestation have decreased calf vigor and ability to generate body heat. Weak calves will be less likely to intake adequate amounts of colostrum and are more prone to increased morbidity and mortality. Ideally, cows should calve at a BCS of 5 (heifers at BCS 6). Up to 80% of fetal growth occurs in the last 50 days of gestation. Females during this period of gestation need approximately 11 Mcal of energy and 1.7 lbs of crude protein per day.

Once the cows have sufficient nutrition to get them through calving the next priority is getting a live calf on the ground. Dystocia increases the risk of neonatal calf death by 4 times. Proper observation of females during the calving season can identify dystocia to allow for timely intervention. Ideally, females should be observed every two hours. A recent USDA NAHMS report ( reported that only 50% of producers observe females more than twice a day and less than 15% observe more than 4 times a day. With proper observation females with dystocia problems can be indentified in time to increase the likelihood of obtaining a live calf. Having your clients know the stages of labor and identifying when a female is in each stage can help indicate when assistance is needed. Stage 1 of labor begins with the initial contraction of the uterus and ends with the dilation of the cervix. Stage 1 labor usually only last 2 to 6 hours. Failure of a female to move out stage 1 labor indicates that the calf may not be positioned properly to cause proper dilation of the cervix. Assistance should be given if stage 1 lasts more than 8 hours. During stage 1 cows will usually be restless and seek isolation for a place to calve. Stage 2 of labor begins when the cervix is dilated and the calf has entered the birth canal and ends with the expulsion of the calf. Stage 2 is characterized by abdominal contractions, the water bag and calf will usually be visible. Dystocia during this time frame can be critical as the cow will quickly become tired and the calf can be traumatized due to repetitive contractions and potentially excessive pulling. Assistance should be given during stage 2 if the water bag has been visible for 2 hours and cow is not pushing, cow has been in active labor for 30-60 minutes without progress, cow is tired or calf appears stressed or if an abnormal presentation is identified. To increase the chance of a live calf, clients should seek veterinary assistance if they do not understand what they are feeling or have been pulling for 30 minutes without progress. When pulling calves do not use more than 500 pounds of force (equivalent of 2 strong men) to decrease trauma to calf.

Once a calf is born alive they must intake colostrum for an adequate immune function. Dystocia calves should be administered colostrum via a bottle or esophageal tube instead of relying on them standing and nursing. Beef calves that do not have adequate colostrum intake and absorption may be 9 times as likely to become ill in the preweaning period than calves that had received and absorbed enough colostrum. As usual, protect newborn calves from extreme environmental conditions when necessary.

Once the calf is born implementing strategies to minimize calf death is important. Historically, calving dates were pushed back earlier in the year so that calves would weigh more in the fall at weaning. However, calving earlier in the year (before April 1) when adverse weather can be a problem increases the risk for calf death loss. It is difficult to make up the value of a dead calf by increasing weight gain in the surviving calves. Another risk factor of calf death loss is calving more heifers. Heifers have increased dystocia problems, inferior colostrum quality, and have the potential to be poor mothers. Management programs that optimize reproduction and longevity of the cow herd will help decrease the replacement rate. The calving area should be maintained to prevent death loss in the post-natal period. Calving areas should be well drain to decrease mud, have adequate shelter for animals and the density of animals should not overwhelm the capacity of the calving area. Decreasing the length of the calving season can increase the value of calves by having more uniform marketing group but it can also help decrease death loss. Long calving seasons increase death loss by increasing the contamination in calving areas particularly towards the end of the calving season. Calves at the end of the calving season are not only exposed to more pathogens but since they are younger they do not have the capability of dealing with all the pathogens that older calves are shedding.

Implementing a calving pasture rotation such as the "Sandhills Calving System" can help prevent calf death loss due to disease. In this system all cows that have not calved are moved to a new pasture every 7-14 days and the cow-calf pairs are left behind. This allows for later calves to be born in a clean calving pasture. Stubble fields can be utilized if grass pasture is not available.

Once calves have made it through the post-natal period don't forget calves out on pasture. Pinkeye is a continual problem for young calves on pasture. These animals do not have a mature immune system so are more susceptible to acquiring a pink-eye infection. Calves should be identified and treated early to prevent large scars or blindness. Not only do calves with pinkeye not gain as much (approximately 20-35 pounds per case) but calves with eye lesions at sale will usually be discriminated against and bring less. Unfortunately, vaccination is not very effective so fly and dust control and pasture management are critical to help prevent the occurrence of pinkeye.

Summer pneumonia seems to becoming more of a problem for producers. Bovine Respiratory Syncytial Virus is a common virus associated with this problem as well as numerous bacteria. However, because their immune system is not mature vaccination of calves with a viral vaccine in the spring has not been beneficial in reducing summer pneumonia. Similar to calf scours increased concentration of cattle enhances the transmission of pathogens between calves. We do not usually think of calves on pasture being concentrated but as pasture resources have decreased the density of animals on pasture has increased. Additionally, a long calving season also contributes to summer pneumonia. As with calf scours multiple aged calves mixed in one group can be detrimental to individuals that do not have an established immune system. Identifying and treating these calves early will help decrease mortality and longer term morbidity and production losses from calves that have compromised lungs.

Immunity and immune function is critical to produce a healthy calf at weaning. Proper attention to mature cow health programs and nutrition is the foundation for quality calves. Good management practices during calving (dystocia and colostrum) and the post-natal period assures that the calf will have proper start in life. Once the calf's immune system is capable of mounting an appropriate immune response vaccinations can be used to enhance the calf's ability to survive the next production phase. The Iowa Green Tag program is hallmark preconditioning program. Ideally calves should be vaccinated prior to weaning to decrease respiratory disease problems during the stressful weaning period. These calves can then be re-vaccinated and if weaned for over 45 days would qualify as Gold Tagged calves. For producers who do not retain ownership of their calves a pre-conditioning program is a reliable method to add value to their calves. Producers should seek sales that fit their production system and that highlight quality pre-conditioned calves available.

Iowa green tag program

     • Calves must be castrated and de-horned

     • Veterinarian administers required vaccines (IBR, BVD, BRSV, PI3, Clostridia and H. somnus)

     • Veterinarian treats for internal and external parasites

     • Calves weaned for 30 days

Iowa gold tag program

     • Calves must be castrated and de-horned

     • Veterinarian administers required vaccines (IBR, BVD, BRSV, PI3, Clostridia and H. somnus)

     • Veterinarian treats for internal and external parasites

     • Veterinarian re-vaccinates calves (IBR, BVD, BRSV, PI3, Clostridia and H. somnus)

     • Calves weaned/backgrounded for 45 days

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