Livestock producers should prepare for some challenges

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With fallen market prices, Tim Petry, North Dakota State University Extension livestock marketing economist, said livestock producers should prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

“One thing about calves being born now and looking ahead to fall, we have time to apply there what’s going to happen between now and then because it’s anybody’s guess,” Petry said, adding, “I think what we have to do for fall is prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

Petry was among NDSU experts giving presentations during an ag economics webinar on March 23.

The 550-660 pound steer calves in North Dakota were at $180 in the last three years.

Market prices have fallen and if you sell now, obviously it will be at lower prices, he said during the presentation.

He said there’s really no good marketing strategies to use now and livestock producers will probably have to switch financial strategies in working with a lender.

Body condition important at calving

COVID-19 (coronavirus) and its long-term impact on agriculture and other industries is on the minds of many people, but this is also calving season for livestock producers.

NDSU-Extension provides some calving season tips for producers:

The last 60 days before calving and the first 60 days after calving are critical periods in the production cycle of the beef cow herd, according to NDSU Agriculture Communication information.

Energy and protein requirements of the cow increase by 15% to 20% from mid to late gestation to support fetal growth and prepare the cow for lactation. Requirements increase again by 20% to 30% during peak lactation (about eight weeks post-calving).

“Failing to meet nutrient requirements prior to and after calving can have major impacts on reproductive performance, particularly for young cows,” said Janna Block, the Extension livestock systems specialist based at NDSU’s Hettinger Research Extension Center. “Reproductive failure is the most common reason for culling cows from the herd, and open cows are a financial drain on an operation due to lost revenue potential and high replacement costs.”

Body condition scores (BCS) at calving are a useful indicator of the cows’ energy reserves and the overall success of the nutrition program. It is a more reliable indicator than weight alone because weight is affected by factors such as gut fill, age, frame size, stage of gestation and milk production, according to Block.

The BCS scale, which goes from 1 to 9, is an indicator of the percentage of body fat. Body condition scores are assessed visually or by touching the ribs, spine, tail head, and hooks and pins.

BCS can be used to determine performance and whether changes should be made to nutritional management several key times of the year, including 90 days prior to calving, and at calving, weaning and breeding. Research has established that a certain amount of body fat is required for the reproductive system to function appropriately.

A strong relationship exists between BCS at calving and the number of days for cows to return to estrus. Ideally, BCS at calving should be 5 for mature cows and 6 for first-calf heifers, with condition maintained through breeding.

Block recommends including BCS of the cow with calving records. This will allow producers to assess the herd’s nutritional status on a large scale and will be useful when evaluating overall pregnancy rates after the next breeding season.

Consequences of calving in low body condition include smaller or weak calves, lower quality and quantity of colostrum, decreased milk production and reduced weaning weights. Colostrum is a form of milk that mammals produce in late pregnancy. It contains energy, protein, fat and vitamins, plus antibodies to protect newborns against disease until their own immune system is totally functional.

In addition, calving in BCS 4 or lower results in more cows being bred later in the breeding season and a reduction in overall pregnancy rates by up to 30%.

“Resuming estrous cycles and initiation of pregnancy are low on the biological priority list for nutrient use; therefore, these functions are likely to be compromised when energy stores are inadequate at calving,” Block said.

In late gestation, cows need to gain at least 100 pounds to support fetal growth and uterine development. If a cow simply is maintaining her weight during late gestation, she actually is losing body condition. Late-gestation diets should be designed so cows gain at least 1 pound per day to maintain condition, and more if an increase in condition is desired.

One body condition score represents about 80 to 100 pounds of live weight. If a 1,200-pound cow has a BCS of 4 at the beginning of the third trimester, she would need to gain at least 80 pounds to gain a condition score and at least another 100 pounds to support fetal development. Therefore, she should weigh 1,380 pounds at calving.

In this example, the cow would have to gain about 2 pounds per day, which may not be possible, depending on weather and access to high-quality feedstuffs. The ideal situation is to increase weight when requirements are lowest at weaning, but attempting to increase condition late is better than not doing it at all.

In situations where cows have calved in less than ideal body condition, weight gain must be increased rapidly following calving to achieve acceptable pregnancy rates.

“This is extremely challenging because large amounts of dietary energy are already required during early lactation just to maintain body tissues and support milk production,” Block said. “Cows usually utilize a portion of their own energy (fat) stores for the first several months after calving to help overcome deficiencies, which can lead to weight and condition losses.”

Some research indicates mature cows that calve in slightly lower condition (BCS 4) still may have acceptable reproductive performance if they are fed to reach BCS 5 by breeding. However, producers still run a risk of increasing the calving interval.

First-calf heifers are less likely to respond to supplementation due to increased requirements, and negative impacts on reproduction are likely. In one study, heifers that calved with BCS of less than 5 had subsequent pregnancy rates of 67%, despite the fact that they were fed to gain nearly 2 pounds per day from calving to breeding.

“Producers should evaluate body condition at calving and act immediately if they want to salvage the breeding season for thin cows,” Block advises. “It will require enhanced management, access to extremely nutrient-dense feedstuffs and potentially the use of strategies such as early weaning calves to reduce requirements and induce estrus.”

Producers should contact their county’s NDSU Extension agent or an Extension specialist for more information about body condition scoring and ration evaluation. Visit ag.ndsu.edu/extension/directory/counties to locate an agent in area.

Diarrhea can be deadly for calves

Cattle producers need to be on the lookout for calf diarrhea, according to North Dakota State University Extension livestock experts in information provided by NDSU Agriculture Communication.

The majority of scours, or diarrhea, cases occur when calves are 3 to 16 days old. Untreated calves essentially die of shock from a loss of fluids and electrolyte imbalances.

“Calf scours is most often associated with infectious, environmental and nutritional stresses,” said NDSU Extension veterinarian Gerald Stokka.

A number of infections can cause viral and bacterial calf scours. Viral infections associated with calf diarrhea include rotavirus and coronavirus.

Rotavirus causes the calves’ intestinal tract to secrete fluid into the intestinal tract, resulting in severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. The coronavirus destroys the cells lining the intestinal tract and causes malabsorption, resulting in severe diarrhea and lack of nutrient absorption.

Neither of these viruses is associated with infections in people. E. coli and salmonella species are bacterial pathogens associated with calf diarrhea and can be associated with infections in people.

A different infectious organism called cryptosporidium is a protozoan parasite that causes scours. Cryptosporidia usually are found in conjunction with other scours-causing bacteria or viruses and may cause infections in people as well.

“Unfortunately, this organism presents management problems as there is no vaccine or licensed therapeutic agent available,” Stokka said.

Conditions leading to scours

“Inadequate nutrition for the pregnant dam, particularly during the last third of gestation, as well as the calf’s exposure to poor environmental conditions, insufficient attention to the newborn calf or a combination of these often result in scours outbreaks,” said Karl Hoppe, Extension livestock systems specialist based at NDSU’s Carrington Research Extension Center.

Not meeting the pregnant dam’s energy and protein requirements will decrease the quality and quantity of the cow’s colostrum. Colostrum is a form of milk that mammals produce in late pregnancy. It contains energy, protein, fat and vitamins, plus antibodies to protect newborns against disease until their own immune system is totally functional. Deficiencies in vitamins A and E, and trace minerals have been associated with greater incidence of calf scours.

“Inadequate environment conditions, such as mud, overcrowding, contaminated lots, calving heifers and cows together, wintering and calving in the same area, storms, heavy snow, cold temperatures and rainfall are all stressful to the newborn calf and increase its exposure to infectious agents,” said Janna Block, Extension livestock systems specialist based at NDSU’s Hettinger Research Extension Center.

“Attention to the newborn calf is essential, particularly during difficult births or adverse weather conditions,” Stokka advised. “The calf is born without most antibodies, including those that fight the infectious agents that cause scours. The calf will acquire these antibodies only from colostrum. Because of this, any effort to prevent scours by vaccinating cows is wasted unless the calf actually receives colostrum, preferably before it is 2 to 6 hours old.

“As the calf grows older, it rapidly loses its ability to absorb colostral antibodies,” he added. “Colostrum given to calves that are more than 24 to 36 hours old will be less than ideal as antibodies are seldom absorbed this late in life.”

Under range conditions, a calf adapts a pattern of nursing that fills its needs. Calf scours can be the result of anything that disrupts this normal habit, such as a storm, strong wind or the dam going off in search of new grass.

When the calf eventually nurses, it is overly hungry and the cow has more milk than normal. This inconsistent nursing may lead to a condition known as enterotoxemia. The organism most often involved with this is clostridium perfringens, which has several types.

The disease has a sudden onset. Affected calves become listless and strain or kick at their abdomen. Bloody diarrhea may or may not occur. In some cases, calves may die without any signs being observed.

Treating Scours

“The key to successful treatment is identifying and successfully treating a dehydrated animal early,” Stokka said.

Calves that have lost significant amounts of fluid will have skin that “tents” (stays up for more than 3 seconds when you pull it away from the body), a dry mouth, cold ears and sunken eyeballs. They often have low blood sugar, low body temperature and low urine output, and decreased blood electrolyte (sodium, potassium, bicarbonate, chloride) levels that adversely affect organ function, particularly the heart. They are visibly depressed.

The critical first step in treating cases of calf scours is correcting dehydration and electrolyte loss. Antibiotics can be administered if your veterinarian deems it to be appropriate.

Stokka recommends using a nipple bottle to replace the calf’s fluids if scours is detected early, when the calf still is standing and relatively bright.

“In these situations, it is best to leave the calf on milk and add several 2-quart electrolyte feedings a day to replace the fluid that is being lost through diarrhea,” he said.

Calves that are down but alert probably need to have fluids administered with a stomach tube. They will need 2 quarts of a high-energy electrolyte solution containing glucose several times a day.

Producers may need to provide a heat source as well. Calves that are comatose or lying down must be administered fluids intravenously. Producers need to be thorough when replacing fluids in a scouring animal, according to Stokka.

“First of all, the amount of fluid lost must be replaced,” he said. “It is a common mistake to give the animal too little fluids. A 100-pound calf that is 10% dehydrated will need about 10 liters of fluid a day just to replace fluid loss.”

Diagnosing scours

– Consult your veterinarian about collecting appropriate samples.

– Send samples to a laboratory as early as possible.

– If your veterinarian is not available, collect a fresh fecal sample from an untreated calf. Place this sample in a sterile plastic container and submit it to the lab chilled for analysis.

– If you have a dead animal, submit it to the lab within 24 hours of death.

Prevention Strategies

– Maximize the calves’ ingestion of colostrum immediately after birth. When necessary, use colostrum from cows in the same herd or colostrum replacement products.

– Maintain the cows’ proper nutrition and body condition.

– Minimize the dose of an infectious agent to which the calf is exposed through sanitation.

– Minimize the density of susceptible calves. Spread them out if possible.

– Keep calving premises clean and dry.

– Isolate sick animals. Quarantine them and don’t comingle them with uninfected calves.

– Do not bring in 1- to 5-day-old calves from neighbors or that were purchased at an auction market.

– Sanitize equipment.

– Avoid traveling to operations experiencing calf diarrhea problems.

“Also remember that many infectious agents that cause calf scours can cause disease in people as well,” Stokka said. “Wear gloves and wash your hands. When working with sick animals, treat them last, and wear dedicated coveralls and boots that can be washed.

“Individuals with any disorder of the immune system and pregnant women should not work with sick calves in any way as they are more susceptible to zoonotic disease,” he noted.


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