Winter hits calves hard

A UNIVERSITY of Arkansas veterinarian says about a third of the 31,000 beef cattle that died during recent winter storms in the state were calves, and there was very little anyone could do to save them.

Dianne Hellwig, a veterinarian and animal science professor for the UofA Division of Agriculture, says, “The first thing producers ask their veterinarian or county extension agent is, ‘What can I give the calves to keep them alive?’ Unfortunately, once you've seen the signs of weak calves and diarrhea, or scours, it's often too late.

“Most producers will want to administer an over-the-counter antibiotic such as sulfa boluses. But the diarrhea is usually due to viral infections, and the antibiotics won't have much affect. Administering antisera products that contain antibodies that protect against diarrhea-causing pathogens may help a calf in the early stages of diarrhea.”

Hellwig said the calves usually die because of the secondary effects of dehydration and starvation. “Many of the calves would require several doses of electrolytes, fluids and the kind of attention that may not be possible in some production situations. The producer quickly learns that it is much more effective to prevent this from happening in the first place.”

She said preventing calf losses is more a matter of cow care than calf treatment. “I would be willing to wager that most of the calves that are lost are from first-calf heifers,” said Hellwig. “These calves are at risk for a number of reasons. The amount of milk and the quality of the heifer's colostrum, or first milk, is much lower than from older cows, so the calf doesn't receive the same kind of protection and nutrition.”

First-calf heifers should be monitored closely as calving approaches. Experts also recommend that the number of first-calf heifers be less than 20 percent of the cow herd during the calving season.

“It's a good idea to calve the first-calf heifers first to avoid exposing their calves to older calves that may be shedding infectious organisms,” said Hellwig. “It's also a good idea to make sure that replacement heifers are vaccinated for respiratory, clostridial (blackleg) and reproductive diseases.”

She said producers can vaccinate their first-calf heifers about 6-8 weeks prior to calving to protect them from the organisms that cause diarrhea in calves. “This will boost their colostrum levels and provide better protection for the calves.”

Cow nutrition is crucial to keeping calves alive and healthy. A cow with a body condition score of less than 4 won't have the energy reserves to produce adequate milk, and it will most likely have calving problems. This cow won't be interested in encouraging her calf to get up and suckle. It may even become a “downer” cow.

“The frigid weather during the week of December 25 increased cows' energy requirements many fold,” said Hellwig. “If they didn't have access to an adequate feed supply, their calves were behind the eight ball from the very beginning. You need to consult with your county agent about assessing body condition score and determining the quality of your feedstuffs.”

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