While a few inches of rainfall these last few months may have provided a reprieve from the drought and pastures might be greening up – there is no doubt 2011 was a challenging year.However, the true effect the nutritional hardships the industry faced will be seen as calving seasons gets underway.

Brockmann bobbi
Vice President of Sales & Marketing / ImmuCell Corp

If your cows have lower body condition scores than normal or you removed and/or reduced minerals to cut cost, you may be facing higher mortality rates and an increase in the number of calf scours cases this year.

Even if your cows don’t show physical signs of being nutritionally deprived, the calves from these cows may be challenged.

It will pay to be prepared this calving season, as situations you haven’t dealt with in the past may crop up this calving season. How you handle these situations will ultimately influence the profitability of your operation. Don’t let this calving season catch you flat-footed; keep an eye out for these six things.

Cows and calves in pasture

Low colostrum quality and quantity

Plan ahead for poor quality, low quantities of colostrum and the impact this can have on calf health.


Nutrition and stress can have a direct impact on the quality and quantity of colostrum produced. In a nutritionally challenging year this means cows sacrifice their body fat stores to grow their calf, so when the cow calves she may not have enough energy stored to provide nutrition for the calf.

As a result, the nutrition the calf receives from the colostrum will be lower and the quantity of immunoglobulins (IgG) will be less.

A calf needs to consume a gallon of colostrum within the first four to six hours of life to establish proper immunity. Remember, calves are born without substantial immunity and must consume colostrum to protect themselves.

If the calf does not obtain immunity from colostrum, it is more likely to become ill. Studies show that calves with inadequate serum IgG concentrations at 24 hours old are 3.2 to 9.5 times more likely to become sick and 5.4 times more likely to die before weaning.

Colostrum consumption has far-reaching impacts beyond the first few weeks of life. Work done by the University of Nebraska tells us that the likelihood of carcasses revealing respiratory lesions at the packing plant as a result of significant respiratory illness is greatly decreased if the calf has had adequate colostrum at birth.

Reduced immunity

Don’t rely solely on your pre-calving vaccination program to provide immunity to the calf this year.

In order to receive the benefits from a pre-calving vaccination program, the calf must consume enough colostrum, which, as noted earlier, isn’t reliable this year.

When a cow is stressed, her ability to mount an immune response to a vaccination is reduced, which also reduces the amount of antibodies available to pass along to the calf.

As a result, relying solely on pre-calving vaccination programs to protect your calves this year may be putting all of your eggs in one basket.

Consider supplementing with additional antibodies that are immediately available to the calf.

Scours increase

Look for an increase in scours this year.

An increase in the number of scours cases is a concern for three reasons – dehydration, weaning weights and increased pathogen load in the herd.

Calves with scours can lose 10 to 12 percent of their bodyweight in water losses. If calves are not supplemented with electrolytes they can die.

Scours also impact calf weaning weights. According to work done over a 14-year period at Montana State University, calves that had scours weighed 458 pounds at weaning while non-scouring calves weighed 478 pounds.

Pathogen loads in the pasture and feedlot are also increased if you have scouring calves. As a result, the health of the entire herd is put at risk.

Poor calf vigor

Keep an eye out for poor calf vigor this calving season.

Research tells us that calves from cows on a maintenance or high plane of nutrition get up and nurse more quickly than calves from cows on a low plane of nutrition.

This is critical because if the calf doesn’t nurse right away, it won’t consume enough colostrum to absorb the immunoglobulins necessary for immunity.

Orphan calves

Expect to see orphaned calves.

Orphan calves are not a regular occurrence anymore but stress, poor nutrition, weather and disease all impact a cow’s mothering ability.

Cows may not claim calves because they are more focused on meeting their own nutritional needs than the calves this year, or they might not have the nutritional reserves to meet the calves’ needs in addition to her own.

Difficult calving

Watch for cows and heifers having difficulties calving.

First-calf heifers that have been nutritionally deprived may have more trouble calving. In addition, calves that experience dystocia often suffer from severe respiratory acidosis. Acidotic calves are less efficient at absorbing colostral IgGs and, therefore, their immune systems may be compromised. 

Cold, wet and wind negatively affect newborns
2012 calving season toolbox

This year’s calving season may present some unique challenges, but a little preparation can go a long way. To be prepared for any situation, it is advised to have the following items on hand:

  • Colostrum replacer
  • Electrolytes
  • Antibody supplement that is immediately available
  • High-quality milk replacer


Top: Make sure cows claim calves and have the nutritional reserves to meet the needs of the new arrivals. Staff Photo