Case Study: Dead one month-old beef calf

How did a beef calf die and what can we learn to help prevent future deaths?

An Angus heifer calf died 33 days after birth on Apr. 8, 2012. The calf was presented at the Michigan State University Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health that same day.

This calf, tagged number 021, was the first calf of a heifer and had been an apparently well-fed and healthy growing calf. A day after the producer noticed she was not doing well, she was dead. What happened?

The diagnostic work-up showed enteritis, or inflammation of the small intestine, with many Coccidial oocysts and Rotavirus in the fecal specimen. In addition to enteritis caused by these pathogens, the calf had advanced septicemia as evidenced by the finding of lesions and hemorrhages in the liver and kidneys.

There were no other notable findings. The report said the calf was in fair nutritional status with adequate hydration. So what happened?

A farm visit was conducted two weeks after the death of the calf at the owner’s request. He started growing his herd of cattle 11 years ago with 15 cows, now he has 80 cows. As a result, some management practices that were adequate at lower cow numbers were being stretched with higher cow numbers.

The winter lot for cows is approximately three acres next to the house and farmstead. It had no vegetation growing in it at the time of the visit. Cows are fed hay in five large rings and watered with a well-supplied artificial waterer. Manure is scraped from the lot and piled at the top of a hill within the lot.

Calving this year began on Apr. 1 and cows and calves remained in the winter lot. Still in the winter lot, older calves ate old hay from the manure piles even though good hay was available. Typically, cows and calves are moved to pasture in the spring.

Calf 021 was born on Apr. 8. The practice of this producer was to give 2cc shots of Bo-Se (selenium) at birth, 2 cc of penicillin (for births during adverse conditions) and vaccinations.

On or about May 6, cows and calves were still in the winter lot and there was a rainstorm of approximately two and a half inches of rain. This rain caused manure to wash off the stacked manure piles and down through the winter lot toward the hay rings. It also created mud throughout the lot. Five days later the calf was dead and other calves subsequently exhibited grayish scours streaked with blood.

Bacteria, viruses and protozoa that are part of the normal gut environment of adult cows can cause disease in calves if the exposure level exceeds the resistance of the calf. The calf’s resistance is related to the immunity it received via the colostrum from the cow and the level of stress on the calf. These principals are more important and more effective than vaccination or antibiotics given at birth.

In this case, cow health and nutrition were supported by regular mineral feeding year-round, annual vaccination program and adequate feed supply. Body condition of cows was good. These factors promote quality colostrum production.

After months of manure concentration in the lot with the calves, pathogen levels were high. It is presumed that calf 021 died because the pathogens present were moved to the feed by the rain.

To reduce exposure, calving should begin in an area apart from the winter lot. As calving proceeds, it is beneficial to move cows that haven’t calved to a new area every couple of weeks as manure from cows and from older calves has an opportunity to build up.

Scours in young calves most commonly represents a breakdown of sanitation. In this case, common bacteria, virus and protozoa that shouldn’t overcome the calf’s defenses, did so because of increased exposure level.

Further calf death was avoided in this case by treating every calf with Corid, a coccidiostat, Kaopectate and an immune booster for five days. These calves and cows were also moved to pasture the same day that the producer returned home from delivering the dead calf for necropsy.

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