Preparing Cows for Healthy Calves: The First Step in Lifecycle Management

Animal performance starts with the cow. Calves born to well-managed cows are primed for success; less healthy ones will never regain their lost potential – including resistance to bovine respiratory disease (BRD). To start calves out right, with proper immune stimulation, focus on following the four P’s: prepare, prevent, protect and preserve.

Preparation is awareness of the status of each individual and the herd. Before a cow is bred, producers need to know its individual fitness by using body condition scoring (the standard measure for cows preparing to breed) and what pathogens are present in the herd at large. This is determined by keeping good records and consulting regularly with a veterinarian. Armed with this knowledge, a producer can make decisions to adjust each animal’s nutritional program and determine which vaccinations will be most beneficial to the cow and eventually the calf.

Good preparation is the foundation of a strong prevention strategy. Vaccinations for a cow preparing to calf can take place as soon as 16 weeks or as late as two weeks pre-calving, but for the greatest benefit, the target timing is approximately 60 days pre-calving. In this scenario, the stimulated production of antibodies should peak about the same time the cow naturally begins stepping up production to fortify her colostrum. However, it may be advisable depending on relative risk to vaccinate earlier for some pathogens to prevent symptoms during breeding and conception. Understanding individual and herd health is critical when weighing the risks and rewards of each strategy.

Protection generally means limiting the cow and calf’s pathogen exposure to the greatest extent possible. Obviously producers want to avoid introducing new cattle – and thus new pathogens – during the calving process, but isolation of newly purchased open or pregnant cows from the herd is preferable. If isolation isn’t feasible, setting up multiple nutrition and watering areas will help reduce pathogen loads in high traffic areas. Critical protection time extends up to four months after calving, when calves begin to get the full benefit of their first vaccinations.

Preserving your efforts means getting those carefully prepared calves started off right and cows transitioned into their next cycle. Around two months, as calves begin to move from milk to a forage-based diet, they can receive their first round of vaccinations. A strong ration of good quality forage is critical to add pounds and maintain pathogen resistance through a strong immune system. Producers need to understand how climactic conditions and time of year affect forage quality and micronutrients. In some cases, early weaning, along with supplementary nutrition, may be beneficial to ensure nutritional stability to avoid compromising their immune system.

Going forward, the calf needs a steady diet to perform and develop a robust resistance to BRD and other pathogens. In periods of declining forage quality, the cow also may need a break to assist its recondition for the next breeding cycle. That break can be provided by early weaning her calf. Both have the greatest chance of performing to potential – with no interruptions from respiratory symptoms – when immune stimulation is a high priority of a producer’s commitment to lifecycle management.

Which of the four P’s (preparation, prevention, protection and preservation) do you focus on most when it comes to lifecycle management?

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