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Calf vitality: The future depends on it

Lauren Yanch for Progressive Dairy Published on 14 April 2022

Current farming operations often experience a broad set of challenges that can be difficult to mitigate. On dairy farms specifically, calf morbidity and mortality continues to be a prevalent issue that can result in short- and long-term consequences for calf health and farm success.

As such, maintaining calf vitality – the calf’s ability to physically and behaviourally thrive from a young age – holds strong importance in guiding the success of the future milking herd.

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There are many effective strategies that can ensure vitality is sustained early in life, and these commonly surround dystocia management and delivery of high-quality and quantity of colostrum postpartum. The following will outline some of the key management and prevention strategies that can be implemented in order to effectively promote calf vitality in spite of commonly faced challenges.

Dystocia, commonly referred to as a difficult calving or birth period, can negatively impact the health of both the dam and calf in some cases. The impacts of dystocia continue to worsen as its prevalence on-farm continues to increase, therefore making this challenge all the more notable in regards to its impacts on calf longevity, health, welfare and success.

Most commonly seen in Holsteins, dystocia often occurs as a result of fetopelvic disproportion, whereby the calf is simply too large for the maternal space in utero, often occurring in first-calf heifers delivering bull calves. Common consequences for a dystocia-born calf can include injury of the spinal cord, kidneys, adrenal glands and in some instances, the onset of hypoxia or metabolic acidosis resulting from umbilical cord rupture. Such injuries can have significant impact on the calf’s ability to prosper early in life, and this success can largely determine its longevity, as dystocia-born calves often have lower rates of gain and increased disease prevalence, therefore impacting their vitality and ability to thrive.

It is not uncommon to see these calves compromised in their ability to stand, walk and effectively absorb immunoglobulin G (IgG) from colostrum, predisposing them to morbidity and mortality in some circumstances. Appropriate strategies therefore must be implemented in order to avoid compromised animal health and success. Current research suggests that the ability to prevent calf morbidity and mortality as a result of abnormalities at calving is difficult to define. Thus, management practices must be utilized to the fullest extent in order to identify, provide and mitigate calf challenges experienced postpartum in order to improve and sustain calf vitality.

For instance, strategies such as VIGOR – a management strategy developed by the University of Guelph referring to visual appearance, initiation of movement, general responsiveness, oxygenation and respiration rate – can be a helpful tool to assist with detecting challenges at the animal level early on.

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When an abnormality persists postpartum, ensuring optimal strategies are used to help improve calf vitality is essential. As research continues to develop in this sector, strategies such as treating low-vitality calves with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like meloxicam, have been shown to significantly enhance a calf’s standing frequency and mobility. Approaches such as these can allow for better identification and management of animal welfare and health, resulting in better prevention of morbidity and mortality challenges as a neonate.

In addition to postpartum calf management, it is crucial that optimal colostrum quantity and quality is delivered less than six hours after birth. This ensures sufficient IgG constituents are able to be absorbed via passive transfer to provide optimal calf immunity. This is particularly important for dystocia-born calves, as failure of passive transfer can be heavily influenced by dystocia, making this a contributor toward poor calf vitality.

As a result, ensuring calves receive a total of 150-200 grams of IgG ideally two to four hours postpartum will better prevent morbidity and can guide a dystocia-born calf in a positive direction right from the start, reducing any compromise in welfare. This, in combination with good management strategies such as well-trained personnel, sanitized equipment and continued observation of calves postpartum, will ultimately allow for substantial mitigation of dystocia challenges at the calf level, resulting in healthy and thriving animals for improved herd longevity. end mark

Lauren Yanch is a technical and operations specialist with Grober Nutrition. Email Lauren Yanch.

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