Dairy Calf Health Practices Impact Production Capabilities

On today’s dairies, capitalizing on herd health begins at birth. New calves are young and full of potential, but they are also naïve and can be extremely susceptible to diseases like bovine respiratory disease (BRD) and scours if proper care isn’t taken early on.

BRD, a serious condition for dairy operations, can occur when environmental and other stressors weaken the calf’s immune system. BRD is the leading cause of death in weaned heifers and the second most common cause in pre-weaned calves. Even those that recover from the disease can experience lasting negative effects on their growth, fertility and milk production.1 Catching BRD early is often the key to minimizing damage.

When is a calf most vulnerable to BRD?
“The good news is, we usually aren’t going to see a lot of respiratory disease in calves less than a few weeks old. Respiratory disease is more of an issue in slightly older calves or around pre- and post-weaning. If they have been raised on a calf ranch, then BRD can be a concern during transportation back to the dairy,” said Dr. Mark van der List, professional services veterinarian for Boehringer Ingelheim.

However, Dr. van der List said it is essential for producers to take early steps to help give a calf the best start possible. The most important thing is to quickly remove the calf from the mother and away from any pathogens in the birthing pen. And then get colostrum into it as soon as possible to give it the maternal antibodies it needs to fight off any pathogens.

“Colostral antibody absorption is critical for building protection,” Dr. van der List said. “Some calf ranches are now tracking the immunoglobulin levels in calves to see what their level of colostrum absorption is. This can help track disease and mortality rates from individual farms and see which farms are doing a good job of successfully raising calves.”

Vaccinations and treatments for respiratory disease
Calves are normally shipped to the calf ranches 24 to 48 hours after birth. “Once the calf ranches receive them, the calves will be processed, put in individual hutches and started on a feeding program. They may also receive their first vaccinations during this transition,” Dr. van der List said. Calves are typically kept in separate hutches for the first 6 to 8 weeks so they can develop before they are weaned and co-mingled.

He warned that the weaning and the co-mingling process can be a stressful time for the calves, and this is when producers may see more disease. Signs of BRD include a reduced appetite, coughing, nasal discharge, depression, eye discharge, droopy ear or head tilt and fever. Once a calf is displaying one or more signs of disease it is time for the caretaker to evaluate whether or not it needs an antibiotic.

“Sometimes, even with the best health plans in place, calves that are under stress can get sick,” he added.

When this happens, Dr. van der List recommends that producers work with their veterinarian to develop a BRD treatment plan that includes rapid diagnosis and the judicious use of antibiotics.

“This means using an effective, fast-acting and long-lasting antibiotic if disease is detected. Early detection of disease is always important and when we have well-trained workers that can detect respiratory disease quickly, we can begin effective and early treatment.”

1Heifer Calf Health and Management Practices on U.S. Dairy Operations, 2007. USDA APHIS. Published January 2010.