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Dr. Amy Stanton, UW-Extension Animal Well-Being specialist, shared ideas on eliminating road blocks to getting heifers pregnant when she spoke at the recent series of "Reproducing Profitability" seminars around the state.<br /><br /><br />

Dr. Amy Stanton, UW-Extension Animal Well-Being specialist, shared ideas on eliminating road blocks to getting heifers pregnant when she spoke at the recent series of "Reproducing Profitability" seminars around the state.

Photo By Gloria Hafemeister

First 90 days of calf’s life vitally important

Jan. 31, 2013 | 0 comments


There is increasing evidence that the first 90 days of a calf’s life has a huge impact on lifetime health and productivity.

Dr. Amy Stanton, University of Wisconsin-Extension Animal Well-Being specialist, says diseases like diarrhea and respiratory disease have a long-term impact.

Before joining the faculty at UW-Extension, Stanton farmed with her family in Canada. The family does genomic testing, and sells live animals and semen and embryos internationally. When she was on the farm she was in charge of replacements.

She says that’s when her interest was sparked in calf health and disease prevention.

She points out that to get a handle on disease it is important to look at the causes.

Diarrhea is caused by E-coli, Salmonella bacteria, Bovine rotavirus, bovine corona virus or cryptosporidium. Two of the agents, Salmonella and Crypto, can also spread to humans working with the infected animals.

Crypto, she suggests, is caused by failing to keep pens clean. Bacterial diseases are susceptible to antibiotics and viral diseases are best prevented by vaccination.

Describing the disease, she says, "In the long term these animals may not die but they are 2.5 times more likely to be sold for dairy, and 2.9 times more likely to calve a month later than healthy animals."

There is usually one cause of diarrhea. Respiratory diseases usually come from a stressor.

"Something weakens the immune system and allows bacteria to affect the system," she says.

When a calf is sick, they usually go off feed and she suggests that is not just in the critical phase of the illness but also later in life. That results in decreased growth.

Animals that have had an illness as a calf generally are older when they have their first calf and they are lighter weight at first breeding.

She pointed to numerous studies indicating that animals that have had respiratory problems as calves also experience respiratory problems throughout their life because they are more susceptible.

She concludes, "Even if they don’t die from the health issue as a calf, studies show they are nearly two times more likely to leave the heard during the first lactation."

Even when calves survive the early disease the costs of treating it, plus production losses and early culling later add up.

"The genetic loss is harder to put a dollar value on but because you have fewer animals to choose from you lose genetic gain," she added.


"We can deal with this by reevaluating our calf raising goals," Stanton suggests.

Those goals include gaining more than two pounds a day in the first three weeks.

She suggests establishing a colostrums protocol that includes measuring the protein in the colostrums. She recommends talking to the veterinarian about including sampling for total protein at herd health visits, and sampling all calves 2-5 days of age with a blood sample.

Stanton also stresses the importance of calves getting a "manure meal" by checking bedding regularly, doing the kneel test to make sure it is not only clean and fresh on top but also dry below the surface.

Avoid stress by making sure the calves are not hungry. On average, a calf will drink 2.6 gallons of milk a day and it is important to make sure this is really happening.

At weaning time take it slow. Step down weaning is the most effective way, cutting the volume by one-third to one-half each week. Provide warm water as replacement for milk.

Provide lots of fresh water and grain, at least two pounds a day prior to their last milk meal.

Do not vaccinate or dehorn at this time.

Moving calves can stress them. Even the apparatus used for providing feed and water can be stressful to the calf if it is new and they are not sure how to use it.

"Watch your calves when they move from individual pens to a group pen," she suggests. "How long are they in there before they figure out where the water is. If there are headlocks, is the noise from the headlocks scaring them so they don’t want to eat?"

She recommends dehorning at a younger age and not at a time when the calves are under another stress such as shots or moving to another pen.

Minimize mixing and moving calves around during times of other stresses. Utilize an all-in-all-out system if possible and don’t crowd the animals when they are young.


Even with all these precautions Stanton says, "Unfortunately sometimes things go wrong. Some things happen and you can’t prevent them and now we need to respond quickly."

Finding sick calves in a group pen is sometimes a challenge so it is important to understand group behavior. In groups it is more difficult to monitor feed intake. Watch for the slower growers.

"Observe calves several times a day," she advises. "Don’t observe them immediately after handling pen cleaning or other potentially frightening situations. Watch them when there is nothing going on around them to scare or distract them."

Watch for sick behavior. Are animals slow to stand? Do they ignore the approach of a person and seem lethargic? Check if one stays lying while group mates stand or standing when others are lying down. Check if one is standing at the feed bunk but not eating.

Look at the nose and breathing and check for signs of diarrhea.

While these things might seem routine, she says it is important for calf-growers to review protocols from time to time to keep calf diseases at a minimum.

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