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BCI CattleChat discusses managing bottle calves, pre-weaning BRD and immunity

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The Kansas State University (KSU) Beef Cattle Institute’s (BCI) podcast hosted KSU BCI Veterinarians Bob Larson and Brian Lubbers, BCI Clinical Assistant Professor Phillip Lancaster, KSU Professor and BCI Cattle Chat Host Brad White and Mississippi State University Professor Amelia Woolums to discuss a variety of topics related to bottle calves and bovine respiratory disease (BRD) on March 24. 

Pre-weaning BRD

Woolums notes BRD occurs in newborn calves in one of two ways – either in the first month of life or around the first three to four months of age. 

“We expect three- to four-month-old calves to contract BRD when they lose their mothers’ antibodies,” she says. 

She notes during the first month of life, there are a variety of things that may occur resulting in calves having difficulty breathing, including diarrhea and other types of infections. 

She says “When a producer sees a calf breathing hard, it’s important to remember it may not be pneumonia, although it may respond the same if it’s treated for pneumonia.” 

Lubbers says calves with a respiratory disease may show signs of breathing difficulty – breathing hard or fast and have a cough, runny nose and temperature variances. 

Microbials are typically a mainstay of therapy, but fluid therapy may be necessary in severely ill animals. 

White mentions not every herd has pre-weaning BRD, but he has found about one in five herds will, with up to 20 percent of the herd being impacted. 

Woolums says in some studies, herds that have been progressively managed for synchronization were more likely to have calves with pre-weaning BRD. 

“When calves are brought together in a group, they’re going to have a chance to spread viruses amongst themselves,” Woolums mentions. “These grouping events are likely to increase the risk for pre-weaning BRD.” 

Raising a bottle calf 

Lancaster says the first thing to think about in raising a bottle calf is getting milk into the calf.

He also notes it’s important to pay attention to the type of protein in milk replacers. There are some plant-based replacers with soybean meal proteins, and then there are milk replacers with milk proteins, like whey. 

“Whey protein is much more digestible for a young calf,” explains Lancaster. “They have a much better ability to digest whey protein than soy protein.” 

He encourages producers to use whey-based milk replacer, especially in the first three weeks of life. 

Woolums adds it’s important to mix the milk replacer correctly. 

“It may not seem like a small amount of water makes a difference, but if producers don’t get enough water into the milk replacer, it can cause some serious health problems in calves,” she says. 

She notes as little as 10 percent of colostrum added to milk replacer can make a difference in helping to protect a calf’s intestine by decreasing the risk of bacterial infections. 

Calves are at a higher risk of contracting diarrhea during their first month of life. Therefore, Woolums advises producers to feed a colostrum and milk replacer combination in the first two to four weeks of life. 

Additionally, producers will want to ensure bottles, mixers and nipples are adequately cleaned after each use and before mixing a new bottle, as bacteria can be easily fed to bottle calves with unsanitary equipment, says Lubbers. 

Vaccine timelines
and immunity

Woolums says there are two ways producers can vaccinate calves, either through vaccinating the mother during late pregnancy, typically two months before calving or when calves are two to three months old, followed by a booster vaccination. 

“If producers can get two doses in to calves before weaning, it can be helpful in decreasing BRD during the post-weaning period,” she says. 

Due to the logistics of vaccinating calves twice, most producers can only administer vaccines once. 

In this case, she notes the best time to give the vaccine depends on when producers see the most respiratory disease.  

Lubbers reiterates some calves don’t respond well to the first vaccination due to interference with its mother’s maternal antibodies, so a second dose not only results in a stronger response, it is also responsible for helping calves gain immunity to disease.

Brittany Gunn is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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