Health, stewardship go hand in hand in raising healthy calves |

Health, stewardship go hand in hand in raising healthy calves

If calves are born in nice weather and can get up to nurse right away, they have a better immune system, Stokka said.
Photo by Teresa Clark

The bottom line in any cow/calf operation starts with a live calf. Dr. Jerry Stokka, the extension veterinarian and livestock stewardship specialist at North Dakota State University, talked about taking a systems approach to ensuring the health of the calf and the stewardship of the rancher.

“Stewardship is a powerful word,” Stokka said. “The definition in Webster’s Dictionary is careful and responsible management of things entrusted to us or our care. It assumes we have taken responsibility for certain things,”

When it comes to baby calf health, he said there’s insurance and assurance, and both are important for proper management. “There are a whole lot of different stressors in a calf’s life that can impact how healthy it is,” he said. Carefully selecting genetics can help a producer achieve high levels of maternal immunity that is critical to managing for health; however, Stokka stressed a health program will never work if ranchers abandon the foundation of health and genetic selection.

“The question is, how can I select bulls that will produce healthy calves? There are no EPDs for that,” he said. “The only EPD I have is for calving ease, which could indicate if the calf gets up and nurses quickly to maximize passive immunity.”

Stokka sees research in the dairy industry that could ultimately help beef producers raise healthier baby calves. Dairies have access to a wellness trait index test that scores cows for things like mastitis, a displaced abomasum, ketosis, retained placenta and lameness. “This is molecular technology that could help us in these areas where EPDs don’t tell us much,” he said.

With a higher risk of bovine respiratory virus (BRD) when calves are in a feed yard and commingled, Stokka questioned whether cattle can be selected that have more resistance to BRD, and other diseases. “There are many risk factors that go into determining cattle health,” he said. “But it may be something to consider in some cattle that actually produce higher levels of the positive immune response that we are seeking.”

Stokka also said that crossbreeding cattle can produce healthier calves. “They have found in dairy cattle that crossbreeding can produce resistance of certain diseases. This could help us understand why there is a lot more survivability in some of our crossbred calves versus purebred calves. Not always, but our crossbred calves may have better immune response against some diseases,” he said.

The amount and quality of colostrum a newborn calf receives can make a difference in its overall health. It starts with the dam. “Some studies show that a little dry distillers fed to pregnant cows in the last trimester can make a difference in the quality of colostrum produced,” he said.

“Plumbing also makes a difference. Any cows with bad bags should be culled from the herd. Even though some can raise a big calf, it is still a health issue,” he said. “Passive immunity passes from the bloodstream of the cow and into the colostrum, which requires nursing by the calf. The amount of immunity in the bloodstream will be concentrated in the colostrum. The cow also passes live cells to her calf that protects it and allows it to respond better to antigens. We don’t get that when the calf gets a colostrum replacer. Nothing is as good as the dam’s colostrum.”

If the calf doesn’t get up and nurse quickly, it is at a higher risk for disease. “There is a benchmark they need to reach to determine if they get enough,” he said. It can be influenced by management, if the cow’s plumbing is right, if they were born easily and in nice weather. “Have we made the environment such that those calves can get up and hit the full mark? That is why cows with bad bags should be culled,” he said.

Stokka shared a study of 93 dairy calves that looked at whether the calves received enough colostrum at birth. Of the 93 calves, 82 percent suffered morbidity from severe BRD, and 39 percent mortality. “How many of us would tolerate that?” he asked. “That is not stewardship. Many times these animals may be healthy, until they go to a feedlot and are commingled.”

Calves can also become acidonic during the birthing process. “The more trouble they have, the more acidonic they become. It causes the efficiency of absorption to go down,” he said. Mothering ability can make a difference, but there is no EPD to measure that. “It affects their health,” he said. “Each stress influences absorption, even cold stress. Many people think it only has a short impact on health, but research says differently. Calves that were sick in the first 28 days of life were 35 pounds lighter at weaning. These calves also had less immunity, and a greater risk of illness pre- and post-weaning.” ❖

— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at