Over the last several years I have made a big fuss over all of the calf health problems that we seem to have here in Minnesota. I realize that Minnesota’s climate makes it a very unpleasant place to live; and it is unpleasant for cows too. Although there are many different agents and pathways that cause calf health problems, by far and away viral calf scours is the number one culprit of calf death loss and performance lag in the annual Minnesota calf crop. I’m sure this is not a problem exclusive to Minnesota by any means, but the data would suggest it is as bad or worse here than in surrounding states.
Treating calf health problems tends to garner the lion’s share of the press in recent times. However, I think there may be some value in reviewing five pretty easy ways to prevent calf health problems in our calf crop that may be as effective; or more effective than just focusing on treatment. I realize that this isn’t the first trip around the sun for most of you reading this, but I still contend that in this day of advanced technology, the Internet of Things, and Twitter, animal husbandry still matters, and a brief review of the basics can be useful to even the most hard-boiled cattle producers in the land.
1) Vaccinate cows before calving for calf scour-causing agents. Obviously for many of us, the time for scour vaccines has passed for this year, but if you don’t current vaccinate for scours, yet tend to have more than a 5 percent incidence of calf scours annually, vaccinating in combination with improved management can lessen the scour problem. There are several different tools on the market and consulting with a veterinarian on which one fits into your deal the best would be a good place to start.
2) Keep cows and calves out of the muck as best as you can. The biggest carrier of scour-causing agents is Beef Tea. If you aren’t familiar with the term, Beef Tea is that perfect combination of mud and manure, usually found perfectly mixed in exactly the right proportions in your calving yards to not only support the livelihood of scour-causing viral and bacterial agents, but actually contribute to their overall well-being and longevity. Scraping calving lots before the frost goes out if possible and put down fresh bedding; and keeping it fresh, will go a long ways toward keeping cows and calves out of the Beef Tea. Contrary to popular opinion, bedding is a necessary cost of running cows in Minnesota.
3) Spread cows out during and after calving. This probably doesn’t need a lot of explanation, however, the tendency to pile the cows around the barn during and after calving is strong in these parts. I realize that much of this has to do with keeping water lines unthawed but I figure in most cases, the cost of developing an additional winter water source or two in strategic locations for calving can be recovered in less than two years. That is how important spreading cows out is to keeping calves healthy.
4) Keep bedding fresh to keep mama clean. Cows that are forced to lay in Beef Tea and get muddy bags will be a point-source for sucking calves to pick up scours. Bedding with corn stover, bedding with straw, bedding with saw dust, it doesn’t matter what it is as long as it keeps cattle out of the muck and keeps bags and teats clean. Keep the bed pack relatively fresh and dry.
5) Provide properly maintained calf huts to keep calves out of the mud and wind. Calf huts have been the bane of many a cow producer’s existence for a long time. In theory they are a great idea and they make a person feel good about caring for their calves. The reality though is that huts are a point-source for scour-causing agents, especially if they are not managed correctly. An actual hut works okay as long as it is moved frequently and rebedded; preferably every two weeks. That’s about six moves per calving season for most folks. A stationary hut that is never moved and never bedded is probably worse than having no huts at all. Huts however, are not the only way. An open creep area built into a windbreak is an excellent place for calves to stay out of the mud and wind. Creep areas will need to be bedded as frequently or more frequently than huts, depending on the weather. Whatever you use, just make sure it is a place that is high and dry and keeps mama out.
It is unlikely that you will ever completely eradicate calf scours from your farm, however, you should be able to consistently maintain an infection rate below 1 percent over the long term by working toward prevention as well as improving your treatment methods and skills. Good luck this calving season!