A calf’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract is one of its largest organs, second only to its skin. Everything a calf touches with its mouth — be it good or bad — travels through this organ and impacts the health and nutrition of the animal.
For young dairy calves, maintaining a GI tract full of healthy microbes is the key to warding off the harmful microbes that fight to overwhelm the system. Dr. Corale Dorn, a veterinarian from Dell Rapids, South Dakota, understands the importance of promoting healthy gut bacteria to prevent disease on dairy farms.
“The GI tract is a really important organ that is going to affect the calf every day for the rest of its life,” said Dorn. “If the calf doesn’t have a good start with a clean environment and the right bugs growing inside of it, or if we kill off the good bugs with antibiotics and get overwhelmed by the wrong bacteria — if anything goes wrong in that balance — we will see the effects in the calf long after a scours treatment.”
Outsmarting harmful microbes to ensure calf health
Dorn consults with area dairy farms and said keeping records of when a calf has been treated can reveal long-term impacts to health effects.
“We have documented cases where calves have come down with really bad scours as babies,” she said. “Then, down the road, for reasons unknown to the owner, a calf drops over dead when it’s 650 to 700 pounds.”
“When we’ve posted calves in these unexpected deaths, we found evidence of internal scarring, with portions of the GI tract covered in ulcers or scar tissue that had ruptured open inside of the animal and killed them,” continued Dorn. “We then look back and see documentation that the calf had been treated for scours earlier in its life — and, of course, dropping dead is an extreme example — but we don’t really know how bad the scours have impacted the calf or how bad the problems are until we get to that point.”
To avoid illness and lower the incidence of death loss on the dairy farm, Dorn recommends staying ahead of the bad bugs and including advanced nutritional technologies in your nutrition.
“One of my dairy farms that I consult with follows all the rules for clean, caloric, consistent feedings, which include BIO-MOS in the pasteurized waste milk they offer the calves,” said Dorn.
“As a result, they not only have calves with exceptional growth rates, well over two times the body weight at weaning, but they’ve had to hold back or cull less than 2 percent of the calves per year since implementing this program. We attribute that to the fact that the calves are growing so well that we never have to intervene or treat for illness, so the calf can simply focus on eating and growing.”
In the case of a severe scours outbreak, Dorn has seen these types of programs quickly turn the health crisis around.
“A second dairy farm I work with doesn’t use antibiotics or prebiotics in their milk replacer, and unfortunately, the calves caught a strain of Salmonella that we realized with testing was resistant to every type of antibiotic they could administer either with a milk replacer, through injection or with oral pills,” she said. “Right away, the nutritionist they work with suggested they include nutritional solutions into their diets to support the sick group of calves. With the introduction of a unique technology, we were able to get in front of a pretty bad outbreak,” continued Dorn. “In those situations, you’ve got to use as many different tools in the toolbox as you can in order to protect the baby calves that haven’t yet caught the bad bugs.”
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