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A woman’s touch can help sidestep health issues in calves

Published on 11 November 2010

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Raising dairy calves is a delicate combination of science and art. Often, the best observers of the subtleties in calf health – and thus the most successful calf caretakers – are women.

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Pneumonia is a primary calfhood disease that continually challenges calf raisers. In this roundtable, we talk to four female calf raisers from across the country about how they navigate pneumonia to raise healthy, productive, profitable calves and heifers.

Panelists include:
• Sherry Arnold, Busses’ Barron Acres in Barron, Wis.
• Hanneke den Ouden, Milky Way Dairy in Maricopa, Ariz.
• Debbie Feldpausch, Sonrise Farm in Westphalia, Mich.
• Cassie Miller, Dream Farms in Newburg, Pa.

Q. What is your incidence of pneumonia in heifers and which organisms are most challenging?

Arnold: We maintain a 1 percent to 2 percent mortality rate overall. Most mortalities are due to joint infections and respiratory disease. We’ve struggled with outbreaks of Salmonella dublin, which can cause very sudden, acute pneumonia. In the spring of 2009, we had a severe problem in 12-week-old to 16-week-old weaned calves. It was eventually diagnosed as bovine respiratory syncytial virus (BRSV), which opened the pathway to other pneumonia-causing pathogens like coronavirus, Mycoplasma and Haemophilus somnus.

den Ouden: Our death loss up to four months old is under 4 percent. Less than 10 percent of those deaths are caused by pneumonia. Our worst challenges with respiratory disease usually come in the spring and fall, when we have temperature swings of 30 to 35 degrees or more.

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Feldpausch: We have an overall mortality rate of less than 2 percent, with less than half of those deaths caused by pneumonia. Both mortality and morbidity are higher in low-IgG calves. We’ve had our share of challenges with many pathogens in the past; however, Pasteurella strains and Mycoplasma have been the greatest.

Miller: Our facility’s mortality rate is less than 1 percent. Morbidity ranges from 15 percent in wet calves to 5 to 10 percent in weaned calves. Our biggest pneumonia challenge was a recent problem with Pasteurella in weaned calves.

Q. How are your calves housed?

Arnold: Wet calves are raised in individual hutches and moved to one of three weaning barns using all-in, all-out management. In the weaning barns, calves are grouped in pens of 12. We installed curtained sides and tunnel ventilation after air-quality testing showed very high aerosol bacteria counts in the back of every pen.

den Ouden: We raise our pre-weaned calves in open-sided barns equipped with individual pens and slatted floors. They stay here until they are weaned at 60 days, then are moved to sheltered corrals, 15 animals per pen. At about 10 weeks old, they are moved and grouped in pens of 60. We rely on natural ventilation for cooling.

Feldpausch: When we expanded, we installed new European-style, group feeders for young calves, so our new buildings accommodate groups. Three feeders feed four pens of 25 calves each, and we also have one smaller machine that feeds two pens of 25 calves each. Our older buildings are equipped with a total of 200 individual, collapsible pens for bottle-fed calves.

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Miller: Our wet calves are raised in individual pens within curtained barns or freestanding condos. At eight weeks old, they are housed in pens of eight or 12 for two to three weeks, and then moved to groups of 40 to 50 until four months. I focus on managing “graduation” to the next level. Our weaned barns have tunnel ventilation, and we learned during our Pasteurella outbreak that air flow always needs to start with the youngest animals and push toward the older ones.

Q. How does your nutrition program help keep calves healthy?

Arnold: Our clients are fairly vigilant about colostrum feeding, but we do take serum samples for total protein levels on incoming calves, with a threshold of 5.5 g/dL to determine failure of passive transfer. We feed all-milk, 20:20 milk replacer with an added fat in cold weather. Especially during our cold winters, I think feeding calves optimal nutrition helps prevent illness.

den Ouden: Every calf receives four quarts of colostrum within one hour of birth, and four more six hours later. We feed pasteurized waste milk supplemented with milk replacer and added vitamins and minerals. For their first 20 days, calves are fed a third, two-quart feeding for an extra nutritional and immunity boost.

Feldpausch: Calves receive four quarts of colostrum immediately after birth, and two more quarts either shortly before or soon after we pick them up on the day they are born. We then feed pasteurized waste milk in one auto feeder, and milk replacer to the remainder of the calves. Although illness issues are very similar between the auto-fed barns and well-managed individual pens, auto-fed calves can eat as often as they like, which creates a more natural and less stressful environment for optimal growth and ease of transition post-weaning.

Miller: We feed wet calves 22:20 milk replacer at a rate of 12 ounces of powder (2.5 quarts), twice a day. They also receive a 20-percent protein, free-choice starter. All calves are weaned by 40 days old. We also check every calf for total blood serum proteins as they enter the facility, which is indicative of whether or not they received adequate colostrum. If the level is too low, those animals are not covered by our warranty program.

Q. What are the symptoms of pneumonia that you observe?

Arnold: The first thing I look for is whether a calf will come looking for its milk bucket at feeding. Snotty noses, mattered eyes, and labored, puffy breathing are other signs. In older heifers, we watch for combinations of multiple symptoms, and use a calf respiratory scoring chart. We also take ear-notch samples to test every calf that enters our facility to detect PI BVD animals.

den Ouden: Calves just starting to get sick will have a dull expression, droopy ears and overall depressed appearance. They are reluctant to eat and may show rapid breathing. If they are further along in the disease process, they may lie down with their heads forward. I can usually tell if a calf has a fever by feeling the inside of its mouth.

Feldpausch: I like to walk the barns first thing in the morning and watch how calves behave. Auto-fed calves are more quiet, but all of them should stand up and be curious. Other things I look for are rapid breathing, head tilt, droopy eyes and an overall gaunt appearance. In our weaned calves, we push up feed several times a day, so it is fairly easy to spot animals that don’t come up to eat.

Miller: I watch for lethargic animals that show rapid, shallow breathing, snotty noses and/or droopy ears. I think respiratory disease is more difficult to spot in cooler weather, because calves don’t show as many outward signs of illness. That’s when we have more cases of “silent pneumonia” that are difficult to detect.

Q. How do you use vaccines and medications to prevent pneumonia?

Arnold: After our BRSV outbreak, we started using a BRSV vaccine intranasally, along with a combination IBR/PI3 vaccine. Now there is a new intranasal vaccine that protects against all three, which we use on arrival and again at weaning. We also give every incoming calf one dose of a long-acting, broad-spectrum antibiotic that is labeled to treat the four major calf pneumonia bugs – Mannheimia haemolytica, Pasteurella multocida, Histophilus somnus and Mycoplasma bovis. Some of these babies travel for more than two hours to get here, so it’s good to have that protection on board as they recover from that stress. We do the same at weaning. In addition, every arriving calf receives 1 cc of magnesium-selenium; 1 cc of vitamin A+E; vaccination for blackleg and H. somnus.

den Ouden: We use an intranasal vaccine for IBR/PI3 on day two and day 14 of life. On day 35, calves receive their first dose of a combination vaccine for IBR, BVD Types 1 and 2, PI3 and BRSV.

Feldpausch: Incoming calves receive intranasal vaccination for IBR, PI3 and BRSV. At four days old, we give a Salmonella dublin vaccine orally, which is repeated two weeks later. At two weeks old, they receive their first dose of a combination vaccine for IBR, BVD Types 1 and 2, PI3 and BRSV, which is boostered four weeks later, in conjunction with a live vaccine for Mannheimia haemolytica and Pasteurella multocida.

Miller: Wet calves receive intranasal vaccination for IBR, PI3 and BRSV on arrival, which is repeated again at weaning. Every newborn calf also receives a dual dose of long-acting, broad-spectrum antibiotics – one that is given in the ear, and one that is given subcutaneously.

Q. What is your approach to treating pneumonia?

Arnold: I normally treat clinical cases with the same long-acting, broad-spectrum antibiotic that we give on arrival. If a treated calf doesn’t look better at the next feeding, I also will give flunixin for supportive therapy. We also recently added water medicators that can deliver an antibiotic via drinking water to weaned heifers during mild outbreaks or times of stress. Our veterinarian always is aware of what medications we’re using, and he reviews our treatment protocols on a regular basis.

den Ouden: My first choice for antibiotic treatment is the same long-acting, broad-spectrum antibiotic and I like the labor-saving aspect of using it, because one dose lasts for 10 days. It also has a low dose volume, which is easier on the calves. I also usually administer a vitamin B-complex supplement and sometimes fluid therapy with lactated ringer’s solution.

Feldpausch: I use one of four different antibiotics to treat, depending on the type of pneumonia. In more severe cases, I also may administer IV fluids and/or anti-inflammatory therapy with flunixin or dexamethazone. In calves with very high fevers, like we’ve seen with Salmonella dublin, I rub them down on their backs and their bellies with rubbing alcohol to help them rapidly release excess body heat.

Miller: I visit with our veterinarian regularly to discuss treatment options and what he is seeing. In the weaned heifers, I currently use a couple of different antibiotics, but I wait at least 48 hours to observe and evaluate before switching. I often administer supportive therapy with the initial antibiotic, including flunixin or dexamethazone; vitamin B; and/or probiotics. In weaned heifers, I also add a medicated top-dress to the feed during harsh weather or if an entire pen is exhibiting mild coughs. PD

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