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Want Healthy Calves? Start Early

Early beats late. That’s true in most things on a farm or ranch, including calf health. 

If you wait until weaning or later to initiate a calf health program, you’re too late, says Mark Hilton, a cattle veterinarian and senior technical consultant for Elanco Animal Health. 

“Nearly every disease encountered in calves is an accumulation of errors that may have started before they were even born,” he says. “As one example, we’ve tracked enough calves to know that if a calf doesn’t get adequate colostrum at birth, it’s three times as likely to get bovine respiratory disease (BRD) in the feedlot.”

4 tips for a healthier calf 

Here are some of Hilton’s tips on early intervention that lead to a lifetime of better calf health.

1. Start with the cow. Provide a good nutritional program for her throughout pregnancy so she’s able to properly nourish the fetal calf. “Then, sit down with your own veterinarian and talk through every aspect of your calving program, including cow vaccinations,” says Hilton.

“I firmly believe in a vaccination program for the cow that will bolster the immunity that she passes along to the calf,” he says. “Common causes of scours in young calves are E. coli, rotavirus, coronavirus, and Clostridium. I would vaccinate the cowherd for those pathogens.” 

There are several vaccines for this, including Elanco’s Scour Bos.

2. Ensure the environment. Calf disease is often tied to the weather, particularly cold and wet weather. While many cattle producers may have good reasons for pushing calving earlier, Hilton is a fan of calving outside when the weather is conducive. 

“Cows are supposed to be low-maintenance animals,” he says. “To me, that means they should calve outside. The more you talk to people who calve later in the season, the more you hear them talk about the lack of issues they have with calf diseases.” 

In some environments, fall is the ideal time to calve due to weather conditions. In other environments, it’s not as conducive to calf health.

Hilton also touts the Sandhills Calving System, popularized a few years ago in Nebraska. It involves moving uncalved cows weekly to new pastures or calving paddocks. Newborns don’t have contact with older calves, thereby, limiting transmission of disease. “One thing I know is that nearly everyone who tries it sticks with it. It works that well,” he says.

3. Be ready for weaning. The biggest weaning issue is often BRD. “If this is your problem, I believe in giving a modified-live respiratory vaccine to calves at two to three months of age. Maybe you can do that in conjunction with branding time or turn-out to pasture time. Then, I like to give a booster at weaning,” Hilton says.

If your veterinarian says it’s warranted, you can also give them a Pasteurella vaccine, he adds.

“Look at every single thing you do at weaning and see if it is contributing to stress on the calf,” says Hilton. “For instance, I like to see calves get weaned a little earlier, like in September or early October if they are born in March or April. The weather is usually dry with moderate temperatures in early fall. You avoid the summer heat, as well as the cold and wet that comes later. Weaned calves don’t need any extra stress.”

Two other stress-relievers he likes: Wean onto fresh grass and wean in fence-line contact with their mothers for a few days.

4. Keep them around a while. “It’s really good for calves to stay on the farm where they were raised for at least 45 days after weaning,” Hilton says. “It usually makes you money. One farm we tracked for 11 years netted an extra $80 per head for that backgrounding period.” 

More About Sandhills

The Sandhills Calving System has spread far and wide since it was conceived by a pair of Nebraska Extension veterinarians 18 years ago and was first implemented by Sandhills rancher Mart McNutt. 

One of those vets was Dave Smith. He gets asked about the concept all the time, even at international veterinary meetings.

Smith has since moved on to become the beef program leader at Mississippi State University, where he teaches the concept to students. “We came up with a name we thought people might remember, and that referred to where the research was done,” he says. “But there’s nothing unique about the system for the Sandhills area. It works anywhere.”

He offers three additional observations.

1. Easy sorting. Some people see a hassle in sorting the uncalved cows every week. It’s not, says Smith. Cows with calves are still very protective and like to get away by themselves. “Cows that haven’t calved learn they are going somewhere new. They’re ready to move,” he says. 

2. Fence line is OK. Not every ranch has the luxury of multiple fenced pastures for moving uncalved cows four or five times in calving season. However, the system can easily lend itself to electric fence for breaking up a larger calving pasture into smaller ones. 

“As far as we’ve seen, calves don’t have much contact with other calves through the fence, so we don’t see disease organisms spread that way. We’ve even tried this in a drylot setting where uncalved cows move to an adjacent drylot. It works there, too,” Smith says. “It’s not about the size of the calving area; it’s about the age of the calves.”

3. Know your problem. For some producers, the system may not be the right fit. “If your problem is calving issues or weather-related issues, it won’t help,” he says. “It might make delivering feed harder. But if your issue is baby calf scours, this system is a whole lot better than trying to catch calves to treat them.” 

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