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Maintaining gut health: Preventing scours during this muddy calving season

The calendar reports that spring has officially arrived, which means that many herds have either already begun calving or will begin soon. This past winter brought excess moisture to many areas. In the warmer areas of the country, this made for a long season of fighting muddy pastures, causing some herds to lose body condition due to increased maintenance costs. In the northern areas, we have garnered an exceptional snow pack that will soon be melting, and the concurrent flooding risk is high.

Unfortunately, no matter what the region, we are in for a muddy calving season, which will greatly increase the risk of calf scours. Scours is the leading cause of death for calves. Treating and caring for scouring calves is both time-consuming and exceptionally frustrating. To catch a calf for its first treatment requires being at the top of your game. Catching that same calf for a second treatment typically means it is almost dead. We can’t change the weather, but there are several things we can do to minimize the risk of scours, including maximizing colostrum quality, providing adequate trace minerals and vitamins, and maintaining good gut health in our cows.

Managing colostrum quality

The cow’s nutrition level during the last month of pregnancy will have a significant impact on colostrum quality. In addition to the rapidly developing calf, udder development and colostrum production are starting to occur. When combined, these factors greatly increase the protein and energy requirements of the cow. A low-protein diet will negatively impact colostrum quality. 

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During these particularly muddy conditions, we need to offer the highest-quality colostrum possible. Calves are born with a naive immune system without any antibodies, meaning they receive their initial immunity through colostrum. The strength of the immunity transfer depends on the how fast the calf nurses after birth, the quality of the colostrum (as related to its antibody content) and the volume consumed within the first 12 hours of life. Calf survival is dependent on quickly consuming colostrum, as the absorption efficiency of the antibodies declines by 50 percent in just a few hours and is non-existent at the end of the first 24 hours after birth. Studies of dairy calves have shown that the rate of survival and the future growth of the calf are directly correlated to the degree of immunity transferred in the colostrum.

Impact of trace minerals on cold tolerance and immune function

The ideal calving conditions include clean, dry grass and some sunshine to help dry and warm the calf. Unfortunately, our reality is that we have too much moisture, and the mud is deeper than it has been in a long time. Calves need to fight this mud to stand and nurse, and they must also utilize their limited internal brown fat reserves to maintain core body temperatures for the first few days of their lives. The metabolic pathway for using these reserves depends entirely on the calf having a good copper and selenium status — and the calf’s trace mineral status depends on how well we supplemented its mother. 

Maintaining gut health

Ideal calving conditions reduce the pathogen load a calf is exposed to once it hits the ground. While dry grass and sunshine can cure many ills, muddy and wet conditions greatly increase the pathogen load risk. Whether or not a calf develops scours depends on both the strength of its immune system and the pathogen load. As mentioned earlier, the calf may be more stressed due to a potentially compromised immune system this calving season.  

The cow’s digestive tract is the source of many of the pathogens that lead to scours. The cow develops immunity to these pathogens but continually sheds them in her manure, and the level of this shedding is entirely dependent on the gut health of the cow. The most concerning pathogens are E. coli, other gram-negative bacteria and salmonella species. These pathogens increase in concentration if they attach to the cow’s intestinal wall, potentially disrupting nutrient absorption. More importantly, this allows them to significantly multiply, leading to the exponential increase of the total number of pathogens released in the manure.

Maintaining gut health is critical for keeping the pathogen load low in the calving environment. Cows with healthy guts shed fewer pathogens, meaning the calves are at a lower risk. If calves born early in the calving season stay healthy, we are typically in good shape — but if scours are common early, those little critters are literally squirting billions of pathogens into the calving area each day. This has a compound effect: the calves born in the middle of the calving season often become the sickest because of the contaminated calving area. 

CRYSTALYX® Brand Supplements offers Blueprint® and Breed-Up® options that help deliver additional protein and a high-quality trace mineral package that includes Alltech’s Bioplex® trace minerals. Providing these supplements to your cows 30–45 days prior to calving will provide additional protein, energy through improved forage digestion, and trace mineral and vitamins that support cow health, colostrum quality and calf vigor.

Utilizing the options that include Bio-Mos® or Actigen® provides the additional benefits of supporting the cow’s gut health, promoting good bacterial and building defenses. Bio-Mos is derived from a specific strain of yeast designed to feed the gastrointestinal tract and supports an efficient nutrient transfer from cow to calf. More than 733 published studies illustrate the benefits provided by Bio-Mos for multiple species, including support of colostrum quality and nutrient absorption.

This calving season will, undoubtedly, be challenging. Fortunately, the CRYSTALYX line of products offers several great products that are sure to fit your specific forage conditions and provide the extra protein, trace minerals and additional nutritional support needed to help maintain the gut health of your herd.