Angus at Work

Blind Spots in Calf Health

March 01, 2022 Angus Beef Bulletin Season 1 Episode 1
Angus at Work
Blind Spots in Calf Health
Show Notes Transcript

Welcome to our new podcast! We are starting this new frontier with a topic that affects every single cattle operation — calf health. It doesn’t matter if you’re a seedstock or a commercial operator, you need to have live, healthy calves. We know it’s not all rainbows and sunshine after a calf is born. Kasey sat down with veterinarian Halden Clark to talk about blind spots in calf health, and what we can do to set them up for a successful, healthy life.

Kasey Brown:

Hello and welcome to our new podcast! We are so excited that you're joining us. I'm your host, Kasey brown. We are starting this new frontier with a topic that affects every single cattle operation, calf health. It doesn't matter if you're a seedstock or a commercial operator, you need to have live, healthy calves. And there are few things better in life than watching a newborn calf get up on its wobbly legs with mama licking it. I don't know about you, but it just doesn't get old.

 

However, we all know that it's not all rainbows and sunshine after a calf is born, that's why I sat down with a veterinarian to talk about blind spots in calf health and what we can do to set them up for a successful, healthy life. Let's dig in.

Kasey Brown:

We are reporting from Range Beef Cow Symposium here in Rapid City, South Dakota. I am joined by Dr. Halden Clark. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

Halden Clark:

Glad to be here.

Kasey Brown:

Well, we are going to talk about out the blind spots in calf health. He gave this great presentation earlier and we're going to get to hear the highlights of that. Dr. Clark, you mentioned that there are several reasons why calves die within the first three weeks, and one of those big reasons was digestive issues.

Halden Clark:

The data I showed is from the National Animal Health Monitoring Service, and they do nationwide surveys of the food animal industries. They completed a cow-calf study in 2017, and it showed just what you would expect for the top four killers of calves under three weeks of age. Dystocia, which is difficult calving, was certainly on the list. That was number one that year. Weather events is on the list. Scours is on the list. And then predation is on the list — predators, like coyotes and so forth. So those are some of the big killers.

 

Scours tends to be one of the focuses of the veterinarian industry, which is why I spoke about that today. The other ones are certainly big concerns as well. And there are things we could talk about related to those, but we just chose to focus on scours today. Scours has a long list of risk factors, so there are a lot of things we can do to modify our risk with that versus some of the others where dealing with those can be more difficult in some cases. So it's our ability to act that led me to choose that topic this morning.

Kasey Brown:

Which I think a lot of our listeners like to be able to do something. We're all people who work with our hands, and if there's something we can do, we want to do it. So tell me why scours is such a problem. You mentioned that there are a lot of causes to it. Can you talk about that?

Halden Clark:

Yeah. So scours is a problem just because it causes disease and illness in our calves. And it's something that we hate to see. It's an emotional thing. It's a frustrating thing. It happens after the major emotional hurdle of calving season is over and then it's another hurdle to get through treating sick calves. So those are some of the reasons why it's such a big issue. It tends to be an issue in herds that have a list of risk factors, such as a lengthy calving season; starting calving early in the spring; calving cows and heifers together in the same physical area; cold, wet, muddy conditions, those all create risk and lead to problems with scours.

Kasey Brown:

And some of the problem with scours is that it's not just one bacteria or virus that causes this, right?

Halden Clark:

Exactly right. That's part of what makes this a difficult problem to handle. It's not just a simple add one vaccine and the problem is over type of situation. It's caused by at least five different things. Bacteria like E. coli and salmonella, rotavirus, coronavirus, (that's not COVID-19, that's just a bovine coronavirus), and then even protozoa like cryptosporidium. So there's a list of pathogens that can cause it. That list is actually one of the reasons that we believe this to be more of a disease syndrome that's set up by a bunch of risk factors rather than a simple cause and effect relationship between a germ and a disease.

Kasey Brown:

Absolutely. So you gave us three general themes on what we can do to try to lead in the fight against scours. The first one you mentioned was balanced vaccine expectations. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Halden Clark:

Yeah. So I'm convinced that we do have some good vaccines that help put good immunity in the colostrum that the calf can get through the colostrum. Then there are also a few others that can be given at other various time points to develop some immunity as well. But I'm also convinced that if all you do is vaccinate, you will not win this battle. This is not something that can be won by vaccine alone. This is going to take some management changes and some implementation of at least the concepts related to Sandhills calving. If not a textbook Sandhills calving method, then at least some changes to keep the most susceptible calves away from the heavy shedders and away from the heavy pathogen loads.

Kasey Brown:

In case our listeners aren't familiar with Sandhills calving, can you give us a rundown of how that works?

Halden Clark:

Yeah. The basics of Sandhills calving is a methodology to break the chain of transmission from calves that are two to four weeks old, which tends to be the period when they shed pathogens most heavily, to keep them separated from the newborns to the greatest degree possible. Another way of putting it is it's a way of restarting calving season over and over based on the observation that even in herds heavily affected with scours. Those scours outbreaks, they rarely affect the first calves born, and typically it's the latest-born calves that are at highest risk. So by starting calving season over numerous times, maybe eight different times through a calving season, you can separate the heavy-shedding calves from the most vulnerable calves and you can prevent a lot of the scours, possibly all the scours. We've actually seen that in some of the data where herds that were heavily affected with scours have ended the problem completely through using this method.

Halden Clark:

So the basics of it are you start in one pen or pasture, and you calve in there for two weeks at the most, one to two weeks, and then you move all of the still-pregnant, common term is heavy cows, to the next pen or pasture and let them calve in there for one week. Then you again move the still-pregnant heavy cows to the next calving pen or pasture and calve in there for a week. You continue that process for as many weeks as it takes to get through calving season. Then at the end of calving season, when the youngest calves are a month old, that's the time to join the groups back up. That's been done with success in herds throughout Nebraska. So it seems like that first month is the vulnerable month and that's where we need to be most careful.

Kasey Brown:

Perfect. And you said that's something we need to plan ahead for maybe a year in advance, right?

Halden Clark:

That's right. So you need a series of clean pens or pastures, meaning multiple locations where there haven't been any cattle for weeks to months so that the surface of those pens is relatively clean of infectious pathogens. You just can't turn on a dime and have that. So it needs to be something that you think about typically for next year, or you need to be able to plan for it. Now, with that said, for someone that's in the teeth of a bad scours epidemic outbreak and they have pregnant cows, I would do everything in my power to get them to calve somewhere else, wherever that may be so that they don't drop the calves into a rolling outbreak. I think that would be very important. So it's not that you can't do it the same year that you have a problem, but it's a lot harder. It's a lot easier if you have some time to plan.

Kasey Brown:

It's important to do the planning. It may sound like it's a lot to worry about, but I mean, scours can affect all of your calves, can't they?

Halden Clark:

In some cases we've seen that, yeah. There are some case studies where 100% of the calves are affected and death losses have climbed as high as 15%. And there are higher numbers in some case studies as well. So generally doing a good job with animal husbandry rarely fails to yield a benefit.

Kasey Brown:

You kind of alluded to it, what are some other options? If Sandhills calving is not an option or you're in the throes of scours, what are some of those other management practices that we could use?

Halden Clark:

Well, a few of those would be taking the key concepts of Sandhills calving, which is that there is pathogen amplification and there is such a thing as pathogen load in the environment, and finding ways in your system that you can prevent pathogen amplification from going unchecked and where you can reduce pathogen load when possible. So some things you can do are to consider the manure from two-to four-week old calves to basically be toxic. From a veterinary standpoint, that's the wrong word to use. But I think from a producer standpoint, it would be the right concept, to think of that manure as toxic to the new baby calves and to keep them away from it. So whatever that means in your system.

Halden Clark:

There's been some success with pairing out immediately into one-week age cohorts, and then making sure those calves stay in their one-week age cohorts, meaning they're with a group of other calves that are all born within the same one week of time, keeping them together until the youngest ones are a month old and then regathering them. When they're all calved in the same place, the results have not been as stellar as what has happened when they're not calved in one single space. But getting them paired out into those one week age cohorts is still helpful and managing them that way. So using those concepts in whatever setting you find yourself can still be very beneficial.

Kasey Brown:

Cool. And that could be within pens or within pastures, however it works.

Halden Clark:

That's right. This has been tried, I just learned this today, but it's been tried at SDSU in pens. And so I'm interested to find out more about that versus a pasture setting. And then there's also some data that was presented in 2013 at the ING Symposium in Nebraska doing a Sandhills calving methodology in pens as well that was successful. So yes, I believe it can be done successfully in either setting.

Kasey Brown:

Oh, cool. Another of the themes that you mentioned was looking at the why. And so it was helping set that calf up for success from the very, very beginning. And I found it fascinating of why colostrum is so important for calves versus humans. I mean, you're exactly right, we don't talk about colostrum with humans. I have two kids. You said you have three.

Halden Clark:

Yeah, that's right.

Kasey Brown:

Can you tell us a little bit of why those are so different?

Halden Clark:

Yeah. Yeah. I'll try to do that. This conversation works really well with a diagram. But the basics of it are, we're just different. And in development, in ruminants and in equines there are six layers of tissue that stay between the mother's blood supply and the baby's blood supply. And that's just too much for those big antibody proteins to get across. Oxygen and nutrients can make it across those six layers of tissue, but that's too much for big antibody proteins that have to remain intact in order to be functional, in order to provide immunity. And so in people, three of those tissue layers break down, and so there's contact between the placenta and the mother's blood supply. There's a much easier route for those antibody proteins to go across. And so human babies are born with a lot more circulating antibody than calves are.

Halden Clark:

So that's why colostrum is such a big deal for obtaining the passive transfer of immunity from the mother to the baby in calves and in foals. Now what that does, and I didn't get a chance to say this, it allows cows and mares to breed back as early as eight days. In the case of horses with the foal heat, about three quarters of mare would be able to conceive on their foal heat, which is eight days after they foal.

Kasey Brown:

Wow.

Halden Clark:

It's incredible. So that's why that design is such as it is. They're both very, very cool systems and they're very different. So there are some big concepts that are different between calves and people. I think knowing what those differences are really helps to put a little oomph in the need to get colostrum into calves. And when I say that, I mean the calves that you need to pull or you need to help in some way. We are pretty confident that we don't need to worry too much about the calves that are up and active, born normally and look good right off the bat. Most of them seem to do just fine. And most of the ones that you have to pull need help. So I really was taught not to consider the job of pulling a calf complete until that calf has colostrum in it. And I think that's the right way to handle this.

Kasey Brown:

So for those calves that were born normally, or really any of the calves, what can we do to help make sure that colostrum is as high quality as possible before that calf is born?

Halden Clark:

So some of the things you can do before a calf is born, you can talk with your veterinarian and see if any of the pre-calving vaccines make sense in your system. That's going to depend on a lot of things that I can't necessarily speak to today. For instance, how easy it is to get cows in and through the chute, whether that's even an option in your system and how much benefit there may be there. So that's a conversation between you and your veterinarian. But keeping the cow in a reasonable body condition is very important for this. The cow will fight to get good antibody in that colostrum, even if her body condition is slipping in order to get that calf off to a good start. That's just built into the system.

Halden Clark:

So there are studies saying that low body condition does not result in poor colostrum quality very fast. But with said, keeping cows in good body condition is good for a number of other reasons, one of which is not having calves that are slow to get up. Low body condition can lead to prolonged calving, and calves that are slow to get up, which can result in not getting up and at the utter in order to get that colostrum. So I say all that to head off anybody that would like to make some fine points that colostrum is still good, even in thin cows. But it's good to keep a very close eye on body condition for a number of reasons.

Kasey Brown:

On the econ side, you shared some data from an owner who implemented Sandhills calving as they were having scours outbreaks. Can you talk to that a bit?

Halden Clark:

Yeah, that's right. So that was from some of the early data that was presented here at Range Beef Cow Symposium in 2003. And one of the herds that the researchers worked with at that time had been having death loss between 6% and 15% for five years prior to the implementation of the Sandhills calving method. And then after implementation, they'd never had another calf die of scours that year or for the two more years that researchers followed that herd. So between the reduction in death loss and the reduction in medicine cost that occurred on that ranch, the owner estimated that the saving were $40,000 to $50,000 per year in that herd that was that heavily affected.

Kasey Brown:

Wow. That's a big deal. That's a large chunk of money.

Halden Clark:

Yeah That's exactly right.

Kasey Brown:

One other word that I really appreciated you talking about, the difference between biocontainment and biosecurity. Can you talk to that?

Halden Clark:

We like to use the term biosecurity to mean keeping pathogens, germs, bugs that are not present in the cow herd out of the cow herd. Whereas we like to use the term biocontainment to mean keeping pathogens that are present within the cow herd that circulate back and forth and are present at low levels at almost any time from getting out of hand. Basically from reaching high pathogen loads and keeping pathogen load away from the most vulnerable animals, which in this case are the newborn baby calves.

Kasey Brown:

At what point do those calves start to get some immunity to the pathogens that are pretty present within that herd?

Halden Clark:

So they're going to have the passive transfer of immunity at birth, and then that will wane over time and they'll start to develop their own immunity, active immunity that they've generated from pathogens present in their environment. And where exactly those lines cross over, it's going to be somewhere in that 1 to 4 months of age. And there's a lot of discussion we could have about that exactly. But by 1 month of age, I think it's reasonable to consider that calf to be much tougher against these kinds of environmental challenges. So it's really that first month where we really need to be very careful.

Kasey Brown:

All right. And is there anything else that cattleman should consider in the fight against scours or in prevention of scours?

Halden Clark:

I think grappling with some of these ideas and talking to your vet about how to implement these, your vet would be a great resource. If you're planning how to do this, I would say absolutely have a chat with your vet and say, “I'd like to put this into practice, or I'd like to try some of these methods in another way based on my needs. What do you think? Am I doing it right? Is this going to work? Can you help me to line this out if you think that there's a better way I can do it?” I think that that would be a great relationship to benefit from in putting some of these things into practice.

Kasey Brown:

Perfect. Thank you so much for your time and your insight. I always like to end my podcast with a bit of good news, because we all know the cattle business is really the people business. So what is something good either professionally or personally that has happened to you recently?

Halden Clark:

Well, we got a ping pong table not too long ago. And so my wife and our three kids have been having an awful lot of fun playing ping pong in the basement. And it's been great to see the kids playing each other. And I haven't been doing all that well lately. My wife and kids are pretty coordinated, so I've been struggling. But it's been an awful lot of fun. So I'll put that in as the good thing lately.

Kasey Brown:

Oh, I love that. We moved about a year ago and the very first thing that went in the house was an air hockey table.

Halden Clark:

Yep.

Kasey Brown:

Oh, I love that. So thank you again for your time.

Halden Clark:

Absolutely.

Kasey Brown:

We are at Range Beef Cow Symposium. Stay tuned for coverage from other speakers in our Angus Beef Bulletin EXTRA and our Angus Beef Bulletin. Listeners, you can access and subscribe to both of these publications at angusbeefbulletin.com/extra. That's E-X-T-R-A. You'll find plenty of searchable information plus digital and audio extensions there as well, so be sure to check out that extra tab at the top right. You've been listening to Angus at Work. Now let's get our hands dirty. Thanks for joining us.