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It’s never too early to start preventing disease in newborn calves

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Published on Jan. 25, 2020

“I truly believe if we are going to stop neonatal disease we need to start ahead of time,” states Dr. Steve Hendrick, veterinarian at Coaldale Veterinary Clinic in Lethbridge, Alberta. “Even if producers aren’t calving until the spring, what they do now is going to impact their calving season.”

            Hendrick points out neonatal disease is one of the leading factors impacting calf crop percentage and economics of the herd. 

            “At the end of the day, we need to sell our calves, so we can’t have neonatal disease come in and wipe them out,” he says.

 Calf death and disease

            Hendrick notes a study done in 2002 by the Western College of Veterinary Medicine looking at 203 herds from across western Canada. He explains the study examined all reports of aborted, stillborn or dead calves in the 2002 calf crop.

            According to Hendrick, the study found 479 abortion cases out of the 29,713 animals at risk, 791 stillborn cases out of the 29,970 animals at risk and 1,155 cases of calves born alive that died within the first three days out of the 29,179 animals at risk. 

            “They also found twins represented 20 percent of the aborted fetuses, 27 percent of stillborns and eight percent of the calves who were born alive then went on to die,” he notes. “Additionally, they found assisted births represented 11 percent of aborted fetuses, 50 percent of stillborns and 17 percent of calves born live that went on to die.” 

            Another part of the study looked at the leading cause of death in stillborn calves, neonatal calves and older calves. 

            “The main cause of death in stillborn calves is dystocia,” Hendrick states. “Next in line were thyroid gland lesions, myocardial necrosis and skeletal myopathy.” 

            Hendrick notes after further investigation, the Western College of Veterinary Medicine found these causes of death were related to vitamin A, vitamin E and selenium deficiencies. 

            “The leading cause of mortality in neonatal calves is pneumonia, followed by skeletal and heart issues, accidents and trauma and septicemia,” he says. “The pneumonia at this stage in the calves’ lives is very unlikely to be infectious. It is more likely caused by damage done from dystocia.” 

            Hendrick goes on to explain infectious diseases such as enteritis or colitis are the leading cause of mortality in older calves. 

            “The study also found the majority of older calves also die from starvation, absomal ulcers and intestinal issues such as obstructions or twisted guts,” he explains.

            Because neonatal disease has such a large economic impact on producers, Hendrick suggests three steps to reducing disease in newborn calves.

Reducing dystocia

            According to Hendrick, the first step to reducing neonatal disease is reducing dystocia. He notes producers should focus their attention on heifers in this first step since heifers are at the greatest risk of experiencing dystocia. 

            “The dystocia rate in heifers versus cows is three times higher, which is why we need to pay more attention when calving heifers,” he states. 

            Hendrick suggests the best way to do this is to calve heifers two or three weeks earlier than the rest of the herd. 

            “This allows producers more time for monitoring their heifers, and it allows more time for those heifers to recover for rebreeding,” Hendrick says. “Mature cows are ready for rebreeding around 60 to 75 days post calving, but heifers can be up to 90 days post calving before they are ready to breed again.” 

            The second way Hendrick suggests reducing dystocia in heifers is using sexed semen.

            “Science has proven there is a much larger proportion of bull calves born in dystocia,” Hendrick explains. “We might be able to make things easier by using sexed semen to produce more heifer calves.” 

            When it comes to managing dystocia across the entire cowherd, Hendrick says the key is detection and knowing when to intervene.

            He explains his checklist for deciding when to assist cattle with birth. This includes if cows actively strain for 40 minutes or more with no progress, if 90 minutes have passed since the water bag first appeared, if the hooves are pointed up or the head or tail emerges first, if an un-calved cow is trying to mother another calf and if cows demonstrate greater than six hours of anxiety. 

Increasing immunity

            The second step to reducing disease in newborn cattle is increasing immunity, according to Hendrick. 

            “The most important part of this step is nutrition,” he notes. “I can’t stress enough how impactful nutrition is on the general immunity of the cow and fetal development and programming of the calf.” 

He continues, “If we are going to stop neonatal disease, we need to start ahead of time, and the winter feeding program is a great place to start.” 

            He further notes there are several different winter feeding programs to consider including dry lotting, winter grazing and extended grazing. 

            “While I prefer winter grazing and extended grazing, I ultimately don’t care what method producers use, as long as they are getting their feed tested,” he says. 

            He continues, “I feel strongly about this because producers need to know what they are feeding. There can be so much year-to-year variation in the crops and forages they are feeding.”

            Hendrick also says it is not only important to know what producers are feeding their cattle, but how much of it they are feeding as well. 

            One of the reasons cow nutrition during winter months is so important is because it impacts newborn calf immunity months later when they are born.

            “Calves are born with very limited acquired immunity,” Hendrick states. “Because of this it is important they get adequate colostrum when they hit the ground.” 

            He notes nutrition of the dam impacts the quality and quantity of colostrum.

            “Producers need to realize it can take several months for these antibodies to get built up to produce good colostrum,” Hendrick says. 

            “Also related to immunity and colostrum is vaccination,” he continues. “The vaccination program for the entire herd can help reduce pregnancy loss and neonatal sicknesses.” 

            Although it is less convenient, Hendrick suggests vaccinating cows prior to breeding. He also suggests using intranasal vaccines instead of intramuscular vaccines when vaccinating newborn calves. 

            He notes, “Scours vaccination at birth is an option, but my impression is these are of limited value because unless our calves are getting sick at two or three weeks of age there is not enough time for that vaccine to reach maximum value.”

            “Vaccinating against scours in the cowherd makes the most sense,” he adds. “If we give it at the right time, the antibodies will develop in the udder and be available in the colostrum when those calves suckle for the first time.” 

Reduce pathogen exposure

            Hendrick’s third step to reducing neonatal disease is reducing pathogen exposure. 

            There are a few simple ways to do this, according to Hendrick. 

            To reduce pathogen exposure, Hendrick suggests reducing stocking density during calving so cattle can spread out and disease transfer will be reduced.

“Calving in the spring is a good option since it naturally reduces stocking density,” Henrick states. 

“Bedding is another cheap medicine,” he adds. “My motto has always been, ‘Dilution is the solution to pollution,’ so whenever we can use bedding to cover up the ground, the risk for infection will be significantly decreased.”

 Hendrick also suggests removing snow in calving pens, warming chilled calves with hot boxes or warm water, providing windbreaks, isolating sick calves and properly disinfecting tools to treat sick calves. 

Hannah Bugas is the assistant editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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