Young pairs enjoy being on spring pasture on a hill overlooking the Bichler ranch April 27 in Linton, N.D.

Mother Nature kept an icy grip on the state much longer than anyone wanted this year, especially livestock producers trying to get through spring calving.

From February up until even the latter portions of April, in spots, snow storms continued to bombard the region and stress the livestock industry relentlessly.

“There’s only one word that seems to fit – it’s been tough,” said Gerald Stokka, North Dakota State University Extension veterinarian. “It’s been a cold winter and we’ve had our share of storms. Depending on when you calve, you’ve been caught in some of them, or maybe even all of them.”

Because of the high-stress conditions, this winter is one that has required more feed to keep cows in good shape, according to Stokka.

“I’ve received calls about cows who weren’t in good shape, and then when calving season came around those cows weren’t in the condition they should be in order to deliver high-quality colostrum to their calves,” he said.

Even producers who calve later in the spring haven’t been able to avoid the tough conditions. The last week of April was considerably wet, with a wintery mix – snow further north – ranging from the Canadian border down through South Dakota.

“When it’s wet like it is right now (end of April), it’s so tough for that calf to get dried off and get off to a good start,” Stokka said. “It’s been a tough winter, a tough spring so far, so now we’re getting accounts of many things, including weak cows, scouring calves and still-births. All of which can be attributed to feed and environmental stresses. It’s all related because that calf isn’t getting enough transfer of immunity from the mother cow.”

Scours has been an issue throughout the state, thus far, during spring calving. The majority of scours, or diarrhea, cases occur when calves are 3-16 days old. Untreated calves essentially die of shock from a loss of fluids.

While there are a number of infectious causes of calf scours, both viral and bacterial, an organism called Cryptosporidium is a parasite that causes the disease. Unfortunately, according to Stokka, there’s no vaccine or licensed therapeutic agent available to fight against the parasite.

Preventing scours

According to NDSU Extension, inadequate nutrition for the pregnant dam, particularly during the last third of gestation, as well as the calf’s exposure to poor environmental conditions, insufficient attention to the newborn calf or a combination of these often results in scours outbreaks.

Failure to meet the energy needs and protein requirements of the pregnant dam will decrease the quality and quantity of the cow’s colostrum, which contains energy, protein, fat and vitamins, plus other antibodies to protect newborns against disease until their own immune system is totally functional.

Other inadequate environmental conditions, such as mud, overcrowding, contaminated lots, calving heifers and cows together, winter and calving in the same area, storms, heavy snow, cold temperatures and rainfall are all stressful to the newborn calf and can lead to exposure of infectious agents.

“Attention to the newborn calf is essential, particularly during difficult births or adverse weather conditions,” Stokka explains. “The calf is born without most antibodies, including those that fight the infectious agents that cause scours. The calf will acquire these antibodies only from colostrum.

“As the calf grows older, it rapidly loses its ability to absorb colostral antibodies,” he added. “Colostrum given to calves that are more than 24-36 hours old will be less than ideal as antibodies are seldom absorbed this late in life.”

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