Animal health matters: Do you know what's in your calf supplements?
Newborn beef calves can be some of the toughest little buggers in the animal world.
Whether born into freezing cold, plopped into a manure pile, or jerked out of their mother with chains, most of them just shake their head, sniffle, stand up and start nursing mom.
But that doesn’t happen with every calf. Bone-chilling cold, scours and pneumonia are all problems some calves face early in life. On one hand, beef calves can be tough as nails; on the other hand, they can be exquisitely susceptible to germs and the whims of weather.
It’s those vulnerabilities that cattle producers focus on, prompting them during calving season to stack the calf’s deck in favor of health and vigor as much as they can.
The most successful operations do this before calving season through attention to cow nutrition and thoughtful matching of genetics to environment. Their goal is to make cows that produce healthy, vigorous calves and high-quality colostrum, setting the stage for growth and resistance to adverse environments and disease-causing germs.
But for various reasons, those efforts sometimes fall short. It’s then that we can reach for the variety of available tools to give these calves a nutritional or immunological leg up. These tools come in the form of pastes, gels, injections, vaccines and pills; it’s a rare cow-calf operation that doesn’t give at least one of these things to the baby calves in their care. But what do these tools actually accomplish?
Many producers squirt “calf tubes” into the calf’s mouth right after birth. These nutritional supplements contain fat, protein, vitamins and minerals meant to provide a boost in times of cold weather or other challenges. These tubes are popular, yet as nutritional supplements, their marketers don’t have to demonstrate effectiveness in order to sell them. Most evidence for their use comes from testimonials from those who perceive good results after using them. I’d personally like to see more and better evidence for their usefulness, but I don’t perceive much downside either.
Also, nutritionally speaking, we have vitamin and mineral injections. Some feel they are of benefit to baby calves and improve growth, vigor and health.
There are situations when calves can be born behind the 8-ball in terms of vitamins and minerals, often related to poor forage and feed quality for cows in late gestation. Calves get these nutrients either through the colostrum (both vitamins and minerals) or in the womb (minerals). This natural delivery system is by far the best for the calves. These injections should only be depended upon to fill the gap when necessary.
Other products are meant to counteract diseases by either providing the calf passive immunity by using antibodies or stimulating active immunity with vaccines. Because stimulating active immunity with vaccines is often challenging in very young calves, we sometimes aim to improve on what the calf received through colostrum by giving it antibody products in the form of gels, capsules or injections.
Managing, feeding and vaccinating cows so they produce good-quality colostrum is better than relying on these artificial means, but when specific disease issues crop up, these products can play a role. However, antibody products are only available against some – not all – scours germs.
Many producers vaccinate baby calves, but not many vaccines are labeled for use in days-old calves. Despite a lack of research and label indications, young-calf injectable Clostridial vaccines are popular in many cow-calf herds, as the toxoid portion of those vaccines may be simple enough for a young calf to respond to. Regardless, producers should always be evaluating the actual risk of those diseases and looking for ways to reduce exposures. Since widespread respiratory disease is uncommon in baby beef calves, I feel vaccines against pneumonia are mostly unnecessary in these newborns.
Even though these products have their places, producers should regularly evaluate their necessity. While most have little downside, there are costs – dollar-wise as well as physically to the calf. Paying attention to biosecurity, nutrition and environment is more difficult, but they pay dividends when it comes to all the challenges these calves face, and not just the diseases listed on the product label.