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Colostrum and vaccinations the focus of DCHA webinar

Progressive Dairy Editorial Intern Madison Leak Published on 13 September 2021
autofeeder and calves

Dr. Lowell T. Midla of Merck Animal Health recently discussed the importance of colostrum and vaccinations in the first three months of a calf’s life in a webinar hosted by the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association.

Breaking down the disease triangle

The disease triangle that plagues calves consists of three pillars: the host, pathogen and environment. Each one of these pillars plays on the other to create either a problem or a small hiccup, depending on how drastic the episode is.



Factors that influence the host include age, immunity, whether the animal has received colostrum within 12 hours, exposure to the elements, nutritional status, dehydration and vaccination.

The pathogen – Midla primarily discussed bovine respiratory disease (BRD) in this presentation – can be several different bacteria looking to survive inside a vulnerable calf.

The environment in which the calf is placed also has a major effect on her health. Stocking density, ventilation, stress of weaning or dehorning, and transport can all influence the productivity of a calf. Midla referred to instances in which the calf might be under stress (such as vaccination, transport, dehorning, etc.) as “stressor storms” and reminded viewers that management plays a large role in this.

“You don’t need to perform all of these procedures at once,” Midla said. “But spreading them out doesn’t necessarily fix things either. You need to find a happy medium that works best for you and your animals.”


According to several studies discussed in Midla’s presentation, “increasing nutrient intake prior to weaning resulted in increased milk yield during the first lactation from 990 to 2,860 pounds when compared with milk yield of ‘restricted-fed’ calves.”


“Immune function requires energy,” said Midla. “When we feed them adequate energy, we’re giving energy to the immune function to respond to challenges.”

Hydration is another underrated factor that contributes to BRD. The immune system’s ability to recognize and fight off a pathogen is accelerated with the proper amount of hydration. Be sure to offer fresh, clean water to calves as soon as possible.

Group housing

Penn State recommends at least 30 square feet per calf for calves under the age of 4 months. 

If using group housing, Midla suggested housing calves in hutches for the first two weeks of life, giving them time to get out of the stage where they are most susceptible to neonatal diarrhea. After about two weeks, moving calves into small groups (following Penn State’s guidelines) of around 10 head or so has found producers success.

Continuous monitoring

Monitoring calves is important, but usually only happens after a problem or outbreak has occurred. It is important to continuously monitor calves, just as you would your lactating herd. Midla suggested setting a standard evaluation for calves that can be conducted monthly and continuing it forever. More data can help you determine where and when problems arise.

Automated feeding

Midla reminded viewers that though automated feeders can basically run themselves, it’s good practice to monitor what is happening at the feeders to predict potential health events. A study done at Penn State determined that prior to a scours event, drinking speed declines for three to four days without a change in volume consumed. Prior to a BRD event, total volume consumption declines for three to four days. Monitoring your automated feeders closely can help anticipate and possibly prevent health events like this from occurring, keeping your calves happy and healthy.


Pass or fail

Failure of passive transfer between the dam and calf directly correlates to the mortality and morbidity rate. Midla recommended that calves receive colostrum within the first two to four hours of birth, since the efficiency of absorption declines immediately following birth.

Producers often see passive transfer as a pass-or-fail test. Either a calf receives passive immunity or she does not – no in between. However, this is not the case.

“As humans, we need to simplify this so we can study it,” explained Midla. “We draw a line at 5.5 protein or whatever number we feel is adequate, and we say that calves below this line fail, calves above this line pass. Well, if you think about it, no biological system is like that. Calves under the line still passed; they’re just not as well protected as calves above the line.”

Maternal antibodies typically wane around the age of 3 to 4 months, which is essentially ground zero for giving vaccinations. Be sure to approach vaccination treatments as such when planning for vaccinations further down the road. The first dose after four months serves as the primary dose of vaccine. Midla advised to use intranasal vaccinations as opposed to subcutaneous, as maternal antibodies are not present in the nasal cavity and will not cause interference with the vaccine.  end mark

Visit the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association website to become a member and view past webinars.

Madison Leak
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PHOTO: Photo by Mike Dixon.