Calf Health Starts Before Birth


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The secret to keeping beef calves healthy and growing starts well before the calf is born – even prior to conception. In fact, the cow’s health can be a strong predictor of the calf’s potential for growth and production. The secret to keeping beef calves healthy and growing starts well before the calf is born – even prior to conception


Cow health basics

While maintaining a pregnancy, the cow should be fed appropriately and receive adequate levels of protein, energy, vitamins and minerals. This helps the fetus develop normally and create a good organ system for future development and carcass trait expression, notes Kerry Barling, DVM, Ph.D., large animal veterinary services manager with Merial.

“Taking care of the cow from a nutritional standpoint is important,” Barling says. “If we can bring her through pregnancy with a body condition score of five, that will go a long way to promoting calf health.”

With a sound nutritional foundation in place, beef producers should next think about the cow’s immune system. Preventing disease can help ensure the calf is carried to term and receives a good start.

“The cow transfers immune components to the calf mainly through colostrum,” he notes. “And, it is important to the development of the calf’s immune system.”

For instance, calf scour vaccines often require a vaccination for the cow during the last trimester to protect against bacterial infections such as E. coli, rotavirus and coronavirus. Other vaccinations to consider while the calf is in utero include protection against infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) and bovine viral diarrhea (BVD). Vaccination in the late pregnancy will increase the level of immune components in colostrum.

Producers should be sure to get their private practitioner’s advice on the specific vaccines to administer to cows during pregnancy, Barling recommends.


Quick on the colostrum

Key components of the cow’s immune system are imparted within the first four hours of life through the colostrum. It’s critical that the cow have adequate quality and quantity of colostrum after birth.

“It all begins with the cow,” says Larry Hawkins, DVM, senior technical services veterinarian with Bayer Health- Care, Animal Health. “The cow has to have enough groceries to make that colostrum. Then, we’ve got to see the calf get up and nurse.”

Research has shown that calves with inadequate passive transfer of immunity via colostrum are at a 6.4 times higher risk of being sick prior to weaning and three times more likely to be sick at the feedlot.

For example, cows that have been grazing on droughtstressed pastures can produce calves that are more susceptible to illness. The window of the first day of life – even the first six hours – is critical to calf health, Hawkins notes.

“Once calves get past 12 hours, the gut is beginning to close and no longer absorbs antibodies in the colostrum as well,” Hawkins says. “The key thing is to get the calf to stand and nurse. If a cow is in good body condition, she will make enough colostrum during that period.”

If a cow does not have adequate colostrum, there are good colostrum replacements or supplements available to purchase. In addition, there are antibody products that can help protect calves against scours if vaccinations were missed prior to calving, Barling suggests.


Stumbling blocks

The main stumbling blocks for health early on in the animal’s life are calf scours and/or respiratory disease, Barling warns.

“They go in tandem in calves a month or less in age,” he says. “Oftentimes, a calf will get sick with scours, and, if the condition goes very far, the next thing that happens is pneumonia can develop.”

In combination, the diseases can affect calves’ growth rate by 0.25 to 0.75 pounds per day through weaning.

Pinkeye is another issue that can set calves back anywhere from 0.3 to a pound per day gain. Similarly, internal parasites, worms and coccidiosis can tack on another 0.3 pound per day loss. What’s more, setbacks from lice and summertime flies can cost producers an additional 0.25 to a pound per day at weaning.

“Adding these things up can really be very impactful in lost pounds by the cattle producer at weaning, performance and losses to the pocketbook,” Barling says. “It also affects animal health and welfare if we have much disease going on.”

After 30 days of age, the most common disease threat for calves is pneumonia caused by Mannheimia haemolytica, Pasteurella multocida and Histophilus somni. Prevention with a sound vaccination program is critical and should also include protection against clostridial diseases.

The specific vaccination protocol should always be developed with the producer’s veterinarian. For example, during his time owning a veterinary practice, Hawkins recommended one producer’s herd be vaccinated for leptospirosis even though other herds in the area never had a problem with the disease.

“Some things are location specific,” he says. “A good vaccination program should be developed after talking to your veterinarian. For this herd, we knew we couldn’t give up on the lepto vaccine even though it wasn’t a common thing in my vaccination program.”

For young calves, colostrum can interfere with the calf’s ability to respond to vaccinations. The maternal antibodies passed on via colostrum can “compete” with the antibodies from vaccinations. Hawkins notes research shows an immune memory response where, even though the calves did not develop antibodies, their immune system recognized they had been vaccinated and responded to illness.

“The type and timing of vaccine is something you want to talk to your vet about if you’re a producer,” Hawkins says.


Strong gains

With a healthy calf on the ground, parasite control and implanting can help maintain health and provide added gains.

“It pays to deworm with a good product,” Barling says. “Deworming at branding can give producers an extra 25 pounds at weaning. For a commercial operation, if you implant at that time too, you can add another 25 pounds with minimal cost.”

Producers may also be able to save money on feed-grade antibiotics by using an effective coccidiostat along with a proven probiotic.

“Not every operation is going to be set up to take these general, overarching recommendations,” Barling notes. “The more knowledge we have, and the more tools in our toolbox, the better we’ll be able to give advice and offer flexibility to producers.”


Adding in management

It’s not uncommon for calves to be weaned on Monday and hauled to the sale barn that night for sale on Tuesday, Hawkins explains. At this time, they’re commingled with other cattle and maybe have never seen a feed bunk or automatic waterer.

“That’s an arm’s length list of stressors that cause cattle to get sick,” Hawkins says. “If we can have their immune system primed and eliminate the stress of weaning, then we have confidence that we’re selling reputation calves that are far less likely to get sick.”

Ideally, Hawkins says that calves should be weaned and vaccinated 40 to 45 days prior to sale or shipping. There are techniques that don’t require much investment or space to reduce the stress on both cows and calves during weaning. Reducing stress allows vaccines to be as effective as possible.

Next, he recommends calves arrive at the backgrounder prepared immunologically and trained to use a feed bunk. The backgrounder should have a place for them to rest before re-vaccinating, which is another stressor.

“It’s a risk when you wait on vaccinations, but giving them a chance to rest and settle down and get used to their pen mates and feed source – those cattle do a lot better,” Hawkins says.



  • Cows should be in good body condition prior to conception and calving.
  • Cow vaccinations are critical to imparting strong immunity to the calf.
  • Colostrum should be delivered to the calf within six to 24 hours of birth.
  • The main threats to calf health are scours and respiratory disease.