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Stewardship essential for calf health

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The bottom line in any cow/calf operation starts with a live calf. Jerry Stokka, Extension veterinarian and livestock stewardship specialist at North Dakota State University (NDSU), talks about taking a systems approach to ensuring the health of the calf and the stewardship of the rancher.

“Stewardship is a powerful word,” Stokka states. “The definition in Webster’s Dictionary is careful and responsible management of things entrusted to us or our care. It assumes we have taken responsibility for certain things.”

When it comes to calf health, Stokka says there’s insurance and assurance, and both are important  for proper management.

“There are a whole lot of different stressors in a calf’s life that can impact how healthy it is,” he explains.

Carefully selecting genetics can help a producer achieve high levels of maternal immunity that is critical to managing for health.

Healthy calves

“The question is, how can I select bulls that will produce healthy calves? There are no expected progeny differences (EPDs) for that,” Stokka says. “The only EPD I have is for calving ease, which could indicate if the calf gets up and nurses quickly to maximize passive immunity.”

Stokka sees some research in the dairy industry that could ultimately help beef producers raise healthier baby calves. Dairies have access to a wellness trait index test that scores cows for things like mastitis, a displaced abomasum, ketosis, retained placenta and lameness.

“This is molecular technology that could help us in these areas where EPDs don’t tell us much,” he explains.

With a higher risk of Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD) when calves are in a feedyard and commingled, Stokka questions whether cattle can be selected that have more resistance to BRD and other diseases.

“There are many risk factors that go into determining cattle health,” he says. “But it may be something to consider in some cattle that actually produce higher levels of the positive immune response that we are seeking.”


Stokka also finds crossbreeding cattle can produce healthier calves.

“They have found in dairy cattle that crossbreeding can produce resistance of certain diseases. This could help us understand why there is a lot more survivability in some of our crossbred calves versus purebred calves. While it’s not always true, our crossbred calves may have better immune response against some diseases,” he says.

Stokka stresses a health program will never work if ranchers abandon the foundation of health and genetic selection.

Starting with the dam

The amount and quality of colostrum a newborn calf receives can make a difference in overall health. It starts with the dam.

“Some studies show a little dry distillers’ grain fed to pregnant cows in the last trimester can make a difference in the quality of colostrum produced,” he says.

“Plumbing also makes a difference,” Stokka continues. “Any cows with bad bags should be culled from the herd. Even though some can raise a big calf, it is still a health issue.”

“Passive immunity passes from the bloodstream of the cow into the colostrum, which requires nursing by the calf. The amount of immunity in the bloodstream will be concentrated in the colostrum. The cow also passes live cells to her calf to protect it and allow it to respond better to antigens,” he adds. “We don’t get that when the calf gets a colostrum replacer.”

Stokka emphasizes, “Nothing is as good as the dam’s colostrum.”

First hours

If the calf doesn’t get up and nurse quickly, it is at a higher risk for disease.

“There is a benchmark they need to reach to determine if they get enough,” he explains.

The amount of colostrum received can be influenced by management, whether the cow’s plumbing is right and if calves were born easily and in nice weather, he says.

“Have we made the environment such that those calves can get up and hit the full mark? That is why cows with bad bags should be culled,” he says.

Stokka shares a study of 93 dairy calves that looked at whether the calves received enough colostrum at birth. Of the 93 calves, 82 percent suffered morbidity from severe BRD and 39 percent mortality.

“How many of us would tolerate that?” he asks. “That is not stewardship.”

“Many times these animals may be healthy until they go to a feedlot and are commingled,” he says.

Health challenges

Calves can also become acidotic during the birthing process.

“The more trouble they have, the more acidotic they become. The efficiency of absorption of nutrients goes down,” he explains.

Mothering ability can make a difference, but there is no EPD to measure that, he comments.

“Acidosis affects calf health,” he says. “Each stress influences absorption, even cold stress.”

“Many people think illness only has a short impact on health, but research says differently,” the veterinarian says. “Calves that were sick in the first 28 days of life were 35 pounds lighter at weaning. These calves also had less immunity and a greater risk of illness pre- and post-weaning.”

Stokka tells producers to also think about vaccinating calves.

“I like to ask myself is a vaccination necessary, does it work and is it safe to use? Look at it as an insurance policy, not an assurance policy,” he says.

Leaving the group with a final thought, Stokka tells producers to think about what they can do, as a cow/calf producer, to send the calves they raise to the next level ensuring that they will be healthy.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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