Protecting the Value of Calves Before Weaning

According to data from the National Animal Health Monitoring System, bovine respiratory disease (BRD) is the second leading suspected cause of pre-weaning mortality for U.S. cattle. While the majority of early cases don’t result in the loss of the animal, it is still important to take precautions. At this critical stage, even a mild case of BRD does damage that will limit a calf’s lifetime potential.

The earlier a calf gets sick, the more lung damage is likely to occur. Lung damage at weaning contributes to a decrease in weaning weight, which can have carry-over effects later in life. Post-weaning, that calf will gain weight more slowly, be more susceptible to disease and generally not perform to the top-quality, high-grading standards producers want.

To protect the lifetime value of each animal, producers should commit themselves to a solid health program. This starts with the cow continues with proper nutrition, environmental management and vaccinations. Respiratory disease in calves aged two to six months also will have an effect later on, but it is not as severe as a calf getting sick at younger than two months. Calves that get proper health management early in life have a good chance of never suffering from BRD at all.

Treating BRD is also a greater challenge in pre-weaned calves. Wide open spaces and lots of cattle to hide among make diagnosing sickness difficult out on the pasture. If BRD makes an early appearance, and, particularly if it has already begun to spread at the time of detection, feed-delivered antibiotics may be the only treatment option for animals so spread out. This is why a health plan is more valuable than a treatment program.

To reduce the chances of pre-weaning BRD, producers can follow a few simple management practices. In addition to constantly monitoring for signs of illness, grouping cows by projected calving date and then avoiding comingling until about one month after vaccination can help manage each animal’s exposure until the immune response is fully primed. Producers also need to be aware of the types of pathogens and other risk factors around their operation. Deficient colostrum, in particular, will reduce a calf’s immune response before vaccination and effectiveness of the vaccine itself.

Just because relatively few calves die from pre-weaning BRD doesn’t mean that juvenile illness isn’t serious. For cow-calf and stocker operators, a little planning and precaution go a long way. What protocols have you put in place to prevent pre-weaning illness? More importantly, does the effort pay off and are your feedlot partners taking notice?

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