A study looking in to the risk factors associated with beef calf mortality found the following:-
- Dystocia (difficult birth), small birth weight and older parity of the mother increased the risk of mortality in calves <1 month old.
- In calves 1 – 5 months old, being the offspring of a heifer was associated with significantly higher risk of death compared with calves from third or higher-parity cows.
- The most commonly reported reasons for beef calf mortality were diarrhoea and pneumonia.
So what can we learn from this?
- Age does matter – keep a young(ish) herd to improve calf survival rates – aim to gradually cull out older problem (>9 years old) cows – this is easier if they don’t go back to the bull after calving!
- Nutrition is so important – ensuring cows are in optimal body condition at calving, and that their energy and protein needs are being met will help to optimise birth weights, reduce the risk of problems around calving time and ensure colostrum and milk supply is optimal.
- Pay special attention to heifers – get the ration, heifer and bull selection right, to minimise risk of difficult calvings and problems associated with poor quality colostrum.
- Colostrum is gold – talk to your vet about how to ensure all calves are receiving the very best protection nature can provide.
What are the major calf diseases that affect beef suckler calves?
Cattle with lung damage are on average 21kg lighter than their healthy counterparts. Even low levels of lung damage can result in poorer carcass quality.
In a recent nationwide online questionnaire looking into farmers’ perception of calf disease and mortality*, 57% of beef suckler farmers said they had experienced pneumonia in young calves (most commonly at 10 days – 6 weeks old) within the last 12 months, with 35% experiencing deaths as a result. Only 27% of beef farmers however had the cause of pneumonia diagnosed on their farm.
Calf pneumonia can be caused by a number of different bacteria and viruses, for many of which there are excellent vaccines available. Identifying the cause is the first step to instigating an appropriate control plan.
The cost of diarrhoea is seen in reduced growth rates, calf mortality and treatment costs, with studies also showing that cattle which suffer from diarrhoea have increased susceptibility to other disease.
In the same online questionnaire*, 72% of beef farmers surveyed reported they had experienced diarrhoea in calves, with 32% experiencing calf mortality due to diarrhoea. Only 41% of farmers used any form of diagnostics to identify the cause of the diarrhoea.
Dam vaccination against diarrhoea-causing organisms is a recognised method of boosting colostrum quality and helps to protect calves against infectious causes of diarrhoea. Grouping of cows and calves according to calf age can be very effective in preventing some causes of diarrhoea in calves. But only by knowing the cause of the problem can appropriate control measures be put in place.
The importance of colostrum
Adequate provision of high-quality colostrum is widely considered as one of the most important calf-rearing practices with well-documented impact on health and performance. However previous studies have shown a high proportion of beef calves do not receive adequate passive transfer of protective antibodies via colostrum. Have your calves all had 6 litres of high-quality colostrum within the first 12 hours? Can you be sure?
Top tips for this calving season….
- Don’t accept any level of calf loss or disease as normal – every calf death or disease outbreak is taking a chunk out of your bottom line…
- Record all losses – only by monitoring and measuring, can we identify if there is a problem
- Investigate early – call your vet to discuss any calf deaths or disease issues during the calving period – don’t leave it until it’s all over – early intervention may stop problems escalating. Sampling prior to treatment and/or carrying out post-mortem examinations are the best way to investigate a problem
- Think about prevention ahead of time – optimise cow nutrition, ensure good calving hygiene, anticipate potential problems, look at vaccinations, look at herd genetics and your selection traits when choosing replacements…
- Think COLOSTRUM, COLOSTRUM, COLOSTRUM!
Most of all …BE PROACTIVE!
Louise Silk – Synergy Farm Health, Veterinary Surgeon MA VetMB MRCVS