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An ounce of prevention is worth 100 pounds

Beef 911: Calves that get sick early in life struggle to catch up with their herdmates and are prone to getting ill again

Over the years, many of the effective treatments for bacterial scours and some for pneumonia in newborn calves have been taken away from us.

You all remember products such as synergistin, gentomycin and baytril which have either been discontinued or prescribing them is highly frowned on for a number of reasons I won’t get into here.

Other antibiotics used in conditions such as viral scours are simply precautionary to prevent secondary bacterial invasion. Some newer veterinary products allow us to be effective in our treatment. They generally have a wide spectrum of effectiveness (most are used subcutaneously) and most recently much longer-acting products have been developed.

However, the importance of that calf’s first suck in the first six hours of life for the transfer of immunoglobulins and natural protection from disease can’t be stressed enough. We all know calves that get sick early in life — for whatever reason — and even if they don’t carry forward chronic problems are often 100 or so pounds lighter than herdmates at weaning.

In the past, most products (antibiotics) given for sickness were daily intramuscular shots. This often meant that to complete the treatment, calves had to be run down and caught (snared, cornered, trapped, leg snared, jumped or whatever means possible) in order to give the final treatment. This alone can be stressful enough to impede the calf’s recovery.

Today, by selecting the right treatment regime, most times the initial treatment is all that is given. If a second treatment is necessary, it is given several days later depending on the efficacy of the initial treatment. Less handling results in the calves doing better and it is much easier to control biosecurity. And you are not spreading disease by handling the calves so much.

Depending on the disease situation, your veterinarian may or may not recommend segregation or isolation to minimize the risk of spreading it to others. Calf scours is an example of a disease where isolation or segregation would be practised, whereas navel infection is often an individual event and the calf is treated and left with its herdmates. (Although navel infection could point to a problem in the calving area where cleaning and disinfection could be necessary.)

Most of the longer-acting products give at least four days’ worth of protection and are given subcutaneously. It is hard to find much muscle on newborn or young calves anyways. Giving shots subcutaneously supports Verified Beef Production program guidelines, and we avoid the muscle damage caused by intramuscular shots.

Even some of the injectable selenium is approved for subcutaneous application nowadays. One antibiotic product, called Excede, has seven days of effectiveness and is currently approved in Canada when applied at the base of the ear. However, talk to your veterinarian as these sorts of products have an extremely long withdrawal time before treated cattle can enter the food chain (because of the risk of residues). But meat withdrawals are really a non-issue when treating these young calves.

Specific conditions such as coccidiosis require a diagnosis as treatment is fairly specific (consisting of sulfa products and intestinal protectants such as kaopectate or activated charcoal). This is another reason for having a good relationship with your veterinarian, as they can keep you updated on the latest products for treating calf issues. One case may lead to prevention for the rest of the herd. There are now vaccines for certain diseases such as pneumonia or scours which can be used on penmates to prevent spread.

Good bedding and keeping the calves from being chilled also help to ward off disease. Calves having a creep area allows them to avoid stress and find a quiet place where they can rest when the need arises.

Your veterinarian may prescribe prophylactic antibiotics at birth. This will depend on the disease prevalence, the confinement the calves are born under, weather conditions, and many other variables. This is why it is best if you and your herd veterinarian confer on whether prophylactic medication is necessary.

The most common antibiotic given prophylactically is tetracycline in order to prevent, if possible, navel infection if it is a problem. As with all disease conditions of neonatal calves, if incidence arises then you and the herd veterinarian need to look at forms of prevention. This may include such things as disinfection, stricter biosecurity, immunizing the cow (so protection is passed down in the colostrum), moving the calving area, and/or starting a new location for recent pairs.

Again, the big issue of calves getting sick — besides the obvious death loss — is that the weaning weight will be much lower for calves that suffer an early illness. That is dollars lost. They may have permanent lung or intestinal damage and are much more likely to be sickened by the same disease at a later date. This has been proven time and again with colostrum-deficient calves.

Watch calves closely during those first few weeks as many major infectious problems can be eliminated by recognizing the clinical signs early followed by aggressive treatment. The reward is healthy, salable large calves come weaning time.

About the author


Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.


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