by: Clifford Mitchell

A cattleman's calendar often takes on dates and time periods that are known to impact the bottom line. Each red checkmark usually has some significance, working through a general protocol to come up with specific results. Calving season is often the beginning of a laundry list of events that will take place until calves are weaned and passed on to the next stage in the production system.

Good management, unfortunately, is not the only factor that will help decide if each of the steps taken were successful. Weather can often put a hold on that potential paycheck. Situations, out of the rancher's control, could limit profitability at the end of the year.

“With the cool and wet weather patterns, conditions are ideal for some scour problems. Most years, sunlight is the best disinfectant for calving areas. Pastures that get exposed to sunlight and hot dry temperatures will clean up some of these problems,” says Dr. Christine Navarre, Extension Veterinarian, Louisiana State University.

“Producers, who don't typically have any scour trouble, could have problems this year with all the cold wet weather. Most producers don't have to worry about environmental carryover of scour causing viruses from one year to the next. As the oldest calves get two or three weeks of age they start shedding the viruses and bacteria that cause scours and contaminate the pasture,” says Dr. Soren Rodning, Extension Veterinarian, Auburn University.

Once the series of events is set into play and calves are on the ground, careful attention must be paid to make sure each of the revenue producers remain healthy until it's time to cash in. Starting off on the right foot could go a long way to prevention.

“Put cattle where you can observe them during calving. When the calves hit the ground, make sure they get up and nurse as soon as possible,” Rodning says. “They should be in a relatively clean environment that is free of mud and manure. This might be easier said than done during a year like this.”

“Crowded wet conditions are favorable for scours. Anything producers can do to decrease stocking density will help,” Navarre says. “Move round bales around so cattle aren't standing in mud. Some producers like to roll out their hay. Anything that will help spread out those cattle and increase hay utilization.”

Scours are often a “profit robber” for many outfits. Well managed herds could fall victim to some sort of outbreak at any given time. Knowing conditions and taking adequate steps for prevention could mean the difference.

“A lot of our scour problems are weather related. During the latter half of the calving season, older calves are like little virus carriers and they are shedding the scours virus like crazy. The younger calves are very susceptible at this point,” Navarre says. “Move the pregnant cows to new ground every two weeks if possible. At least divide your cows into an early and a late calving group. This will decrease exposure to scour causing bacteria.”

“When practical and logistically possible, it is a good idea to separate and move the cows that haven't calved every two or three weeks. This will recreate the first two or three weeks of the calving season when pastures are clean,” Rodning says. “Each operation has to tailor this to the resources that are available. At two or three weeks of age, calves are shedding a lot of virus and bacteria, the calves that are born later are exposed to a lot more disease causing organisms than they would be if we can get cows in a clean pasture. There are always going to be some viruses and bacteria present, but we can limit the amount of contamination so the younger calves can handle the challenge.”

Cattlemen who do their homework and maintain cattle at the proper nutrition levels are often one step ahead of the illnesses that can affect the calf crop. Cattle that calve in good body condition score help jump start calf immunity.

“Cow nutrition is a critical part of calf health. This will help the fetus get developed properly and make sure that calf's immune system is in working order,” Rodning says. “Good colostrum is the first step and will initially help the immune system until that calf is old enough to fight off infection on its own.”

“Certain years, it takes extra supplement to keep cows going. Healthy cows and good nutrition are something we can control as managers,” Navarre says. “Sometimes excess cold weather is stressing cattle. We can't control the climate. Cows that are in good condition usually have a leg up.”

The benefits of good management usually fall into place one right after another when cattlemen take the time to properly prepare the herd for the next evolution. It is not “rocket science” what tightening the calving interval can do to decrease labor costs and increase pounds at weaning, but some could overlook the benefits it brings to disease prevention.

“A defined calving season brings a lot of benefit to calf health. The more we tighten that calving interval the more management we can apply,” Navarre says. “The more spread out our calving season the greater risk later calves have for scours. If you are moving pregnant cows every two weeks to avoid contamination you need two more pastures for a 90 day versus a 60 day calving season.”

“As producers tighten their calving season, they can focus their management on events. Cattlemen can calve those cows when they can take care of them the best,” Rodning says. “Match your calving season with better nutrition in the grass so your cows will produce better colostrum. This will help producers observe calf health and be pro-active instead of reactive.”

It is no secret a properly vaccinated herd comes better equipped to handle different challenges than one with no insurance policy. Scour vaccines are sometimes relied too heavily upon to guarantee calf health. Unlike a total herd health program where those costs are essential to maximize profit potential, scour vaccines may be targeted to certain classes of cattle or groups that will face the most disease challenge.

“There are a lot of good scours vaccines out there, especially if you're limited in what you can do with management. A vaccine's role in scours prevention is like a quarterback on a football team; sometimes they get too much credit when things go right and receive too much blame when things go wrong,” Rodning says. “Cattle that are going to be more tightly confined should be priority for vaccination because you increase chance of exposure. There are definitely differences in colostrum quality. A middle-aged cow is likely going to have better colostrum than a heifer. With proper husbandry a cow might not need a scour vaccine, but it might be just what that first calf heifer needs. An ideal vaccine has the longest duration of immunity and could be given at preg check time to avoid getting up and moving around those heavy bred cattle.”

“I don't think a scour vaccine and the extra cost is for every situation. Vaccines aren't band aides, proper nutrition helps a lot with disease management and prevention,” Navarre says. “It's a good practice with heifers because they need that extra boost. Most are going to calve them close in confinement where exposure could be higher. Make sure you give vaccines properly and get them boosted if that's what the label calls for. Cattle that are in poor condition will not have any immune response.”

When an outbreak occurs or individuals start showing signs of scours most producers panic. What seems to most as a logical form of management could be the wrong thing to do.

“It's always important to keep a close eye on those calves as they start to grow. At the first sign of trouble most want to move the sick animals,” Rodning says. “It's important to remember the first thing we need to do is remove the cows that haven't calved into a clean pasture. Move the healthy cattle, and treat the sick ones where they are, keeping contamination in one area.”

“Move the cows that haven't calved to a different pasture because the calves that are on the ground have already been exposed. Don't move the sick calves because you take the contamination with you and you have contaminated two places,” Navarre says. “Decrease stress and improve the environment, if you can, for the ones that are sick whenever possible. Getting them to high ground and out of the mud could help control calf diarrhea.”

Treating scours is always a challenge. Much like the flu in humans, calves will have to weather the storm and depend on quick recognition for a full recovery.

“You have to recognize scours early because it's often caused by a virus. If you can recognize it early and keep them hydrated, a lot of times they can take care of themselves,” Navarre says. “Have a plan. Make sure you have electrolytes on hand and know how to administer them. Probiotics and vitamins can also be beneficial. Clean your equipment so you don't spread the disease. Getting them to a dry, warm place and keeping their mommas milking well also helps. Early diagnosis is critical.”

“I always tell people to hope for the best and plan for the worst. If you have problems, talk to your local vet. Get alternatives on how to manage as the situation progresses,” Rodning says. “We have to treat viruses symptomatically. Make sure calves don't get down and dehydrated.”

Dealing with sick animals is a priority for any cattlemen. Most operations use time-tested procedures to deal with the sick ones, but sometimes a second opinion will help find the cure.

Once cattle are compromised, the decrease in performance that is passed down the line is well documented. Many factors go into a healthy calf crop. Outfits that place an emphasis on management, drawing on every ounce of husbandry knowledge without breaking the bank, could be the best equipped to handle the challenges Mother Nature brings to beef production.

“We'll have some situations where calves get nutritional scours as cows move to rye grass or better forages. As long as your calves look healthy and are bouncing around, don't worry about them. Once they start getting a little depressed, it's time for action,” Navarre says. “Cattlemen need to remain vigilant in checking calf health and work hard to make sure they control what they are able to control. Common sense will answer a lot of questions that come up in daily management.”

“When there is too much exposure, the immune system can't keep up with the challenge. There are a lot of different causes of scours, but something like a mineral program is often overlooked resulting in a weak immune system and we have an outbreak,” Rodning says. “Every situation is different. The balance between a healthy animal and a sick animal is the level of immunity they have to withstand the disease challenge.”


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