In the springtime, Mother Nature brings many new babies into the world, including farm animals. If you drive past the herds of animals in the fields you can’t help but smile as the babies romp and play. For calves and other ruminant farm animals, this is a good sign that they are healthy.
Unfortunately, living in the outside environment can be challenging, and sometimes results in illness for these newborns. One of the more common conditions that can sweep through young calves is diarrhea. The common term for this is calf scours. This can be very serious and life-threatening in some situations. Many farmers and ranchers have struggled to nurse calves back to good health with a great variation in success. This can be frustrating to say the least, and even disheartening when nothing seems to work. There are several details to consider in preventing this disease process.
The first thing to think about is the immune status of the calf. Normal calves are born with a working, inexperienced immune system and the calf must mount an immune response to everything it comes across. This immune system experience takes some time to develop. Thankfully, to help with initial immunity, the calf is born with the ability to absorb immune proteins from the first milk, called colostrum. This is only in place for the first few hours of the newborn calf’s life, and after the first day, no more immunity can be absorbed by this route. Therefore, it is very important that the calf is active and able to nurse all it wants soon after birth. The mother cow needs to be healthy and have abundant colostrum available from a healthy udder. It is well worth time spent to ensure that a new calf get this first immunity from his mom.
The second thing to consider are the ways that the calf can pick up scours. Many different infectious agents are out there, some of which are viruses, others bacteria and some are even parasites. The initial source is usually adult animals, which shed these organisms in small numbers and no longer get illness from them. As the winter period progresses, the feeding areas get dirtier and the scour causing agents increase in the contaminated environment. The first cases of scours generally start from this source. However once the calves start to have diarrhea, the contamination of the environment increases exponentially. Sick calves become the source for any calves born later.
The third factor, and sometimes the hardest to control, is the stress on new baby calves. No matter how well things are going, Mother Nature always throws a few curveballs. Bad weather like rain and snow, cold temperatures, muddy ground or even extremely windy or dusty conditions can all affect these young animals. Overcrowding adds a different kind of stress. Sorting and other management chores can be another another aspect.
These three factors are the disease triangle. Our goal is to break the disease process by interfering at one or more points of this triangle. Healthy calves need a healthy mother and must drink adequate colostrum soon after birth. They should be born into a clean environment where they are able to move with their mother to a clean pen or pasture that is not full of winter contamination. The herd must have lots of space and clean, dry places to rest. A successful low-stress calving season allows the rancher to rest and watch as the calves run races with their tails arched over their backs. Now THAT is what makes you smile!
Dr. Perry Spitzer is an owner and director of North Peace Veterinary Clinic Ltd. with his life and veterinary partner, Dr. Corinne Spitzer.