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October 11 Agriculture Column

Howdy!!!

It is that time of year to be thinking of bring those cow/calf pairs home for the winter.  The pastures are losing their product nature, like all grasses they are preparing themselves for the long winter season ahead.  The big question again this year; should we sell our calves off of the cow or background them into the midwinter season?  Each operator has their own philosophy of the market place and the cattle yard to handle those extra numbers while others do not.  I am not a market analyst but the higher corn market does make me worry about cattle prices over the short term.  There are other factors that affect markets and that is the current value of the dollar.  There again I talk about things that is out of my league; however I raised cattle once and have seen markets really dive off due to the higher costs of feed.  Speaking of markets I can remember back in the early 80’s and selling a load of heavy calves in Rugby, I had a good friend Clayton Brandt haul them for me and the weather was absolutely stormy but Ken Solberg thought we should bring them anyway.  Clayton and I headed west and bucked many large snow drifts crossing the road west of Garske to Maza (now way under water) and finally reached our destination.  This market is very different today than yesterday but sold those calves (topped the market that day) weighing 795 pounds for a gross check of $243.00/head.  I thought I was on top of the world.  The kids had a Christmas concert that night and was late but did make most of the concert in a storm only to tell Deb we could not have done any better. 

Vaccinating your calves have similarities to our children 

With the arrival of a dry fall, many calves will move from their home farms in the next few weeks. Calf prices are relatively good so this should be a happy time. At about the same time children all over Virginia have returned to schools to learn the academic things they must know to become functioning members of our society.

The down side to all of this is that in a few weeks hospital pens will be full of calves being treated for disease and some will have died; meanwhile doctors’ offices will be full of parents with sick children.

So how can this be, with all the advances in modern medicine that we have at our disposal? Hasn’t there been enough vaccination? Virginia school regulations dictate that all children be vaccinated for basic diseases before they enter school. Unfortunately, many of the calves that leave their home farms have not been vaccinated. But even if they all were vaccinated, would some still end up in the hospital pen?

How Kids and Calves Are the Same


Many of us have had the unfortunate experience of having well vaccinated calves get sick anyway…just like well vaccinated children get sick after being exposed to other kids at school and being stressed with a new routine. Of course children (and hopefully calves) have been vaccinated against the really bad diseases. Children are not dying of polio, measles or diphtheria. Well vaccinated calves don’t die of IBR, BVD or Blackleg. But the story is not that simple.

One of the reasons kids and calves still get sick after vaccination is that there a number of viruses for which no vaccination is available. In human medicine we talk about “cold” and “stomach” viruses. In a respiratory disease outbreak in Japan, 24 strains of rhinovirus were isolated. Like the human situation, there are probably too many viruses that change too rapidly to ever have enough vaccines to prevent all such infections.

How Kids and Calves Are Different


Fortunately, most of the viruses that children contract at school cause relatively mild conditions. With the right medical attention and some tender loving care they recover relatively rapidly. The bad news is that calves do not fare so well. Many calves infected with viruses will develop pneumonias that will make their condition very serious. Calves lack the ability to efficiently prevent bacteria from invading their lungs. Some of these bacteria are normal bugs that live in the noses and throats of calves but don’t invade unless there is a viral infection or stress. Others of the bacteria probably are more serious causes of disease and build up among sick cattle to which calves are exposed.

Another difference between calves and kids is that children get treated a lot better. No days without feed and water. No being torn away from their mothers all at once. A chance to stay home to rest and recuperate.

In the end, a lot of calves will get really sick. Without antibiotics and tender loving care they will either die or have prolonged, serious disease that will result in major losses in production.

How Can We Help the Sick Calf Issue?

1. Vaccinations are required for kids and ought to be for calves.
2. Reduce stress. Here are 10 specifics:
a. Separate the stress of weaning from the stress of marketing. The market is willing to pay you to do this if you find the right way to sell calves, and you can get some economical gains.
b. Wean gently (on farm, fenceline or nose weaner systems)
c. Good watering systems for weaning and marketing
d. High quality hay at weaning
e. Palatable, medium energy supplements at weaning
f. Separate the stress of commingling (a necessary evil for many Virginia calves) from the stresses of weaning and marketing
g. Low stress handling
h. Separate the stress of processing (vaccination, implanting, etc.) from the stress of weaning and marketing
i. Separate the stress of castration and dehorning from the stress of weaning and marketing
j. Shorten time-in-transit when marketing

3. Use antibiotics judiciously. Metaphylactic antibiotic treatment (usually given when calves are purchased) is one of the most effective procedures that has been studied in recent years in preventing illness and death in “high risk” calves. High risk calves are those where the prior owner didn’t do 1 and 2 above.

Sick calves, like sick kids seem to be a fact of life. However, good management can reduce the rate of sickness and well as minimize the bad outcomes.

Source: Dr. Dee Whittier, Extension Veterinarian, Beef Cattle, VA-MD Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, VA Tech

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