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Have a game plan before calving season gets underway

The risk factors that can sicken young calves are numerous but some can be mitigated, says veterinarian

Ensuring a calf gets enough colostrum and has dry bedding can lessen the chance it will become sick.
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The upcoming calving season will be a time of risk for disease on cow-calf operations. Pathogens that cause disease in young calves are present in all herds, so careful management is necessary to prevent them from getting sick.

“Cow-calf producers most often deal with scours, septicemia, respiratory disease, and joint or navel ill,” said Dr. Claire Windeyer, a veterinarian and professor and researcher at the University of Calgary.

“Septicemia often looks like a severe case of scours, except there is no diarrhea associated with it. In other cases, septicemia may present itself as calves found dead because the disease advances so quickly.”

Risks for disease can be thought of in terms of a triad including the pathogen (the bug), the host (the calf), and the environment.

“Pathogen risk factors include the certain bacteria or viruses in a producer’s herd. The pathogens that cause calf disease are usually already present on farm, so producers should focus on the other two parts of the triad. The host risk factors include things like: Did the calf get enough colostrum? Was it a difficult birth? Was the calf born into a snowbank?

“All those things can put calves at higher risk for disease. In terms of environmental factors, those include things like winter storms, or milder winters where there is a lot of mud.”

In terms of preventing diseases in young calves, the biggest difference between the herds that manage their calf health well and other herds is the planning put into the calving season, said Windeyer. The effort to wean healthy, heavy calves starts long before the calving season and before calves get sick, she added.

“Start to plan at the breeding season the year before by selecting the right cows for your herd, and checking the body condition score of your cows,” said Windeyer. “Going into the calving season, producers should be thinking about what their goals are — and from there, what their protocols and approach will be.”

Windeyer recommends having a clear ‘game plan’ and making sure all the equipment and plans are in place before the calving season.

“Having a plan allows producers to make sure they are able to mitigate all three parts of the risk factor triad. This includes things like making sure cows are vaccinated, good colostrum management, and providing bedding to keep calves warm and dry.”

A webinar given by Windeyer on this topic on Dec. 8 can be found at

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