Calves face many challenges on their way to adulthood. Like people, stress lowers their ability to fight diseases. Reduce calf stress by feeding their gut, taking preventative measures, starting strong and preparing them for transportation.
Everyone can use a little less stress in their lives, especially farmers. Fortunately, there are unlimited options to help you relax and de-stress. It might be reading your favorite magazine, binge watching a new show, doing some sun salutations or enjoying a cold beverage.
Calves get stressed too. And like humans, stress from transitions like diet and weather changes can increase susceptibility to disease. The only difference between you and your calves is the methods used to de-stress.
So how can you help your calves? Yoga might not be the answer, but here are four ways to support calves before and during times of stress:
Seventy percent of a calf’s immune function occurs at the gut level, protecting the calf from the most likely point of entry from infective organisms. Changes in diet, housing, weather and weaning can upset a calf’s gut environment, making the immune system unable to defend the body like usual.
Probiotics (aka direct-fed microbials or active microbials) are good bacteria that help keep the gut environment in balance. Feeding calves probiotics can help support the immune system during times of stress. They’re also useful as a preventative measure to prep the gut before stress occurs.
The volume of probiotics needed can vary based on the calf’s stress level. To help determine this, see which group your calves fall into based on their current or future stress level.
• Low stress: Calves encounter few stress challenges, and the farm is meeting the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Gold Standards for morbidity (10 to 15 percent) and mortality (1 to 2 percent). Feed a high dose (5x) of a probiotic supplement at 2 days of age. Provide a milk replacer containing probiotics or continue to feed a maintenance dose of a probiotic supplement with pasteurized waste milk throughout the pre-weaned phase.
• Medium stress: Calves experience some stress, like weather challenges or vaccination, but nothing too severe. Feed a high dose (5x) of a probiotic supplement at 2 days of age. Continue feeding the supplement at a lower dose for the first three weeks, and provide a milk replacer containing probiotics through weaning. If feeding pasteurized waste milk, continue supplementing with probiotics through weaning.
• Heavy stress: Calves face multiple stress factors, like shipping or pen changes, or the farm has a more than 15 percent morbidity rate. Feed a high dose (5x) of a probiotic supplement at 2 days of age. Continue feeding the supplement at a lower dose for the first three weeks. Provide a milk replacer designed for stressed calves through weaning.
Some stress events are unpredictable, but often you can prepare for them in advance. Setting calves up ahead of time for housing changes, weaning, vaccination, transportation and feed changes can go a long way toward reducing their stress levels.
Hydration makes a considerable impact on disease prevention, speed of recovery and treatment effectiveness. Feed electrolytes three to five days before a stress challenge to keep calves hydrated and to help them recover faster.
When a calf becomes sick, energy is diverted to fighting off the disease, leaving little energy left for growth. Add a third feeding of pasteurized whole milk or milk replacer before and during times of stress (especially cold weather). A third feeding ensures calves have enough energy to manage health challenges while channeling energy for growth.
Multiple stress events at one time compound pressure on the calf’s immune system, making her more susceptible to disease. If possible, limit stress events to one at a time to help spread out the strain and allow calves to recover before the next stress event. For example, wait to change calf housing until after weaning stress has passed.
One of the most stressful times for a calf is immediately after birth. The gut environment and immune system are mostly underdeveloped, making newborn calves extremely vulnerable to disease.
The maternity pen is a minefield when it comes to introducing bacteria into the calve’s system. This makes maternity pen cleanliness critical to protecting calves from bacteria challenges after birth. Ask yourself these questions to find opportunities to improve the cleanliness of your maternity pen and reduce stress, which will impact newborn calf health.
• How often do you clean and sanitize the maternity pen?
• Is the pen isolated or a group pen?
• If it’s a group pen, how many cows are there?
• Is there enough space per cow?
• Is there a spot where a cow can get herself away from other cows during calving?
Beyond the maternity pen, warming huts are frequently used to dry calves after birth. Calves love the warm environment, but, unfortunately, bacteria do too. Clean and sanitize warming huts between each calf to prevent the spread of disease.
Remember what was said about only one change at a time? That is no longer an option when it comes to shipping calves. Transportation puts an immense amount of stress on calves at one time. The result? A high risk for disease challenges.
Prepare calves for shipping by feeding a probiotic supplement and hydrating them with electrolytes for three to five days before transportation. Depending on the length of transportation, calves might miss a feeding during the trip, which means they won’t have the energy needed to respond to disease challenges. Feed calves immediately before getting on the truck to ensure they have nutrition for the trip ahead.
The same rules apply once calves reach their new environment. Feed milk or milk replacer immediately upon arrival, and continue feeding supplemental probiotics and electrolytes for another three to five days to counteract any disease challenges picked up along the way. Keep feed as consistent as possible from one location to the next. If you need to change milk replacers, do so gradually over three days to give calves time to adjust.
Stress is unavoidable when raising calves, but there are ways to mitigate the impact of stress without resorting to teaching your calves yoga. Implement these four tips and work with your calf and heifer specialist to find additional ways to reduce calf stress on your farm.
Illustration by Corey Lewis.
Director of Nutritional ServicesLand O’Lakes