Dairy Excel: Pay attention to calf health: It’s the basics of your milking string profit

The smell is usually the first clue as you walk into the calf barn. Words can’t really describe it, but once you’ve smelled it, you never forget it.

Scours. Enough to slump the shoulders of any good calf feeder. Calf feeding is going to take a little longer tonight. Getting enough fluids into that calf is going to be critical to whether she has a bad day or two or whether she dies.

Three words critical to growing healthy calves are the same words needed to keep cows healthy and productive – clean, dry, comfortable. For calves, add a little additional attention to “draft-free.”

Prevention. According to veterinarians Lucy Ward and Kent Hoblet, speakers at the Calf and Heifer Jeopardy program held in Wooster and Williamsfield a few weeks ago, prevention is critical to raising healthy heifers. Prevention includes dry cow management, calving management, calf housing, calf nutrition and handling.

Dry cow management is critical to the cow’s next lactation as well as the health of her unborn calf. Proper vaccinations of the dry cow will provide necessary immunity to the calf when she receives colostrum from her dam.

What should cows be vaccinated for? The answer will vary by farm, depending on what pathogens are a challenge to the milking and calf herd. You and your veterinarian should review and tweak the program at least annually.

The basics. You’ve heard this before. Clean, dry, comfortable calving pens, high quality colostrum within the first hour or two, navel dipped in iodine ASAP. These practices are critical to getting that calf off to the best start possible.

Poor quality colostrum can be supplemented with a commercial colostrum supplement in a pinch. These supplements do not provide an adequate replacement for colostrum. Keep extra high-quality colostrum in the freezer.

If Johne’s is a problem in the herd, get that calf out of the calving pen as soon as possible.

Calves can do well in many types of housing, but for calf health, well-managed hutches have proven to be the Cadillac housing system time after time. As I write this, the wind is howling outside, the thermometer is hovering in the 20s and the drawbacks of hutches are obvious. However, any calf housing system has to maximize fresh air, separation of calves and be easy to clean and disinfect.

What are you feeding? If I had to pick any area that most farms could see almost instant benefits from, it would be nutrition.

Too many farms feed milk replacer according to the label directions. Normally, this is a good thing, but for most traditional milk replacers, this will keep a calf alive, but she cannot live up to her growth potential at that level of nutrition even in warm weather. In colder weather, she needs more energy just to maintain her bodily functions. If we don’t give her more milk, she will actually lose weight and have lower resistance to infections.

Fighting scours. Even on farms that do everything right, calves get scours. Then what? The calf has to be kept hydrated – certainly a challenge when she is spray painting the walls every 10 minutes. Keep the calf on her normal diet of milk or milk replacer. Do not dilute the milk or add electrolytes to her milk meal.

This recommendation is different than how we thought sick calves should be managed just a few years ago. The calf needs to continue her milk diet in order to get enough energy. Taking her off of milk for a day or two will literally starve her of nutrients as well as impair her ability to fight the infection.

Milk proteins are digested after the calf curdles them in her stomach. If we dilute her milk with water or electrolytes, the concentration of proteins may be too low for the curdling process to take place and they will pass through undigested. Again, we are starving her of vital nutrients.

Feed supplemental electrolytes after she has had her regular milk meal. When a calf is scouring and losing fluids rapidly, plan on feeding warm electrolytes at least one more time between each feeding. If she is broken to a bucket but not interested in drinking electrolytes, offer them in a bottle. If she will only drink a pint at a time, offer her more in an hour. Any trick you use to get fluids into her will give her an increased ability to fight the infection.

Avoid the tube. If the calf is running a temperature, she is often not interested in eating. An aspirin can help get that temp down and get her interested in eating again. I am personally not keen on tubing calves if they can be coaxed to eat another way. While I would tube her in a life-or-death situation, no matter how good you are at it, tubing is another stress to an already stressed calf.

We wish we could go to the medicine cabinet and pull out a pill that would make a scouring calf better. If it were only that easy! Calf scours can be caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites as well as diet and stress. Obviously, some may be helped by drug therapy, others will not. Enlist your veterinarian to help sort out the sources on your farm.

There is really no reliable way to look at a calf’s scours and using consistency and color as a guide, diagnose the pathogen. To refine the diagnosis, scour samples should be sent to a diagnostic lab for evaluation.

Finally, when your usual bag of tricks is not doing the job, consider intravenous fluid therapy before the calf gets too dehydrated. In the context of the value of your heifer, the likely $70 to $90 cost is money well spent. Your veterinarian may prefer that you bring the calf to their clinic or you can set up a ladder or pound a nail in the wall to hold an IV bag next to the calf’s pen.

Yes, monitoring a calf on an IV will take a little extra effort, so put her where it is convenient to watch and take care of her.

Between getting her rehydrated and benefiting from whatever additional therapy the veterinarian felt was needed can be the difference between adding another fine heifer to the milking herd or digging another hole out in the woods. You choose.

(The author is the northeast Ohio district dairy specialist with OSU Extension. Send comments or questions in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)

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