Exceptional Health Management

By Dawn Singleton-Olson

April 5, 2019



The management practices and daily decisions of livestock producers influence the health of each one of their animals.

For cow-calf producers, those decisions have a direct impact on a successful calving season, and the future outcome for each animal – from successful re-breeding, to calf weight gain, and even the amount of antibiotic use later in production. Knowing the products and practices that are key to exceptional health management is a valuable asset for every interaction with your customers.

Factors during calving season

There are so many factors that can impact a cow during calving season, it’s vital she be in optimal health in the latter stages of pregnancy. A young cow or heifer delivering her first or second calf is still growing and developing herself, and is expected to produce plenty of colostrum for a healthy calf, maintain body condition during lactation when nutritional needs are at their peak, and be ready to rebreed 45-60 days after calving. Cows may require additional calcium, protein, and energy pre-and-post-calving, as well as vitamin and mineral supplements, depending on the region where your customers are located.

Cows begin forming colostrum in the mammary tissue three to six weeks before giving birth. Vaccinating pre-calving helps build peak antibody levels in the colostrum to protect against pathogens like E. coli, Clostridium perfringens Type C and D, and rota and coronavirus. Timing is important and varies among vaccines, so having quick access to those label instructions is helpful for making recommendations to your customers.

Difficulty calving is rare in mature cows at less than two percent, but first-calf heifers are more likely to have problems. Most calves lost at birth are due to calving injuries or suffocation from delayed calving, so it’s important your practitioners and producers are stocked with supplies to assist with problem births. This includes equipment such as calf pullers or calf jacks, OB chains and handles, OB gloves and shoulder protectors, lubricant and disinfectant scrub.

Problems with calving can also cause a cow to prolapse. Vaginal prolapses typically occur before calving, often due to the pressure and weight of a large uterus in late pregnancy. Although they aren’t typically life-threatening, they should be treated early, since once the tissue is turned inside out, blood supply in the prolapsed area becomes restricted, making the tissue swell, become difficult to push back and more prone to infection. A uterine prolapse can happen directly after the cow calves and continues straining, and is often life-threatening. Supplies for prolapse repair can include perivaginal or umbilical tape, Buhner needles or curved prolapse needles, toggle sutures or button prolapse repair kits. 

Proper care of newborn calves is an absolute must, and making sure they get an adequate amount of high-quality colostrum as soon as possible is a top priority. Colostrum ingestion from the cow’s first milk is the best disease protection for calves, since they are born without the protective immunity of antibodies. Two to four hours after birth is the optimum time to absorb the maximum amount of antibodies. Calves absorb maternal immunoglobulins from colostrum very efficiently during those first hours, but it doesn’t take long for the cells lining the small intestine to start to close. Absorption is greatly diminished by 12 hours and completely gone 24 hours after birth. Passive transfer of immunity from colostrum is essential for reducing disease and mortality in the first weeks of life as well as for long-term health, so producers should have a high-quality colostrum replacer or supplement on hand, along with calf bottles and esophageal tube feeders for situations when calves are unable to receive it from the cow.

Following protocols

Calving management varies widely, so be ready to discuss the protocols recommended by your practitioners so you’ll know what products they stock and use regularly. Many producers give newborns a boost with shots of Vitamins D and E or selenium. Up to 20 percent of calves develop navel infections, so dipping the navel stump with chlorhexidine solution or iodine is often recommended. A spring cold snap can stress the immune system, since calves are born with just 2 to 4 percent of their body weight as fat, so veterinarians may suggest a respiratory vaccine to prevent BRD. Neonatal calf diarrhea – or calf scours – is one of the most costly diseases in both the beef and dairy cattle business, so a scour prevention product such as Calf Guard Oral Gel is usually administered. For calves who do start to scour, it’s important to counteract dehydration with electrolytes and fluid therapy. Make sure your customers are stocked with esophageal feeders (specifically for fluids), scour boluses and calf balling guns.

Accidents happen, and occasionally a newborn or young calf may have a fractured limb from a difficult birth, or from being stepped on. Depending on the location, they can often be treated successfully and economically, since young growing animals tend to heal quickly. Supplies include roll cotton, cast padding, fiberglass casting material and a variety of splints, including Thomas-Schroeder splints for higher fractures. It’s a great idea to write the date for removal right on the cast to avoid pressure sores, so don’t forget to suggest a marking pen!

If you’re an ISR with little or no experience in calf care or just need a refresher, be sure to check out the new video series from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. They’ve produced 11 videos (in both English and Spanish) on calf management that include processing newborn calves, handling, colostrum and passive immunity, using esophageal feeders and heat and cold stress. At just about three minutes each, they’re worth your time to take a look and can be found at this link: https://mediahub.unl.edu/channels/27873. The English versions start on page 2.

Producers who employ the best management decisions for the health and well-being of their animals set themselves up for optimal success and profitability. Your knowledge of the products you sell that support those practices, and how they’re used, set you apart as a valued asset to your customers.

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