Enhancing calf immunity through nutrition

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Calf death loss from scours has not changed for decades.  If anything, it has gone up.

Michael Ballou, researcher at Texas Tech University, cites data from the 1930s, 40s and 60s that showed preweaned calf death loss from 5 to 6%.  Recent estimates by the National Animal Health Monitoring System show mortality in the range of 7.8 to 10.8%, with well over half of those losses attributed to scours.  Ballou points out that these statistics are occurring despite the expanded availability of antibiotic therapy today.

According to Ballou, gastro-intestinal disease causes calf deaths in one of two ways:

  1. Dehydration; or
  2. Septicemia caused by pathogens gaining access to bloodstream

While most management efforts to prevent scours have focused on colostrum delivery and reducing calves’ exposure to scours-causing pathogens, Ballou and his colleagues wanted to find out whether calf health and survival could be improved via nutrition.

Ballou points out that resistance to disease is a balance between the microorganisms to which the calf is exposed, and how well the animal’s immune system is functioning.  He also notes that calf death loss due to scours decreased dramatically after three weeks of life, because calves have acquired more “adult-like” immunity by this age.

A team of Texas Tech researchers led by Ballou conducted a study in 2010 to evaluate nutritional strategies to help calves resist scours during the critical first three weeks of life.  Their work combined the feeding of prebiotics and probiotics to populate the gastro-intestinal tract with “good” bacteria; and hyper-immunized egg protein to bind “bad” bacteria and prevent it from infecting calves.

They found that providing these additional supplements did, indeed, reduce the incidence of scour in the first 21 days of life, with the treated calves experiencing only half as many scours cases as untreated animals.

In additional studies, Ballou’s team investigated whether feeding more nutrients in early life could improve short- and long-term disease immunity.  They found that calves fed “higher-plane” nutrition programs had greatly improved immunity.  These results are consistent with the work of other researchers that shows calves fed higher levels of nutrients early in life show greater long-term survivability and productivity. 

Ballou concludes that, while research in this area needs to continue, feeding calves more nutrients improves their ability to develop immunity and resist gastro-intestinal disease.  Delivering liquid nutrition via more frequent daily feedings also shows merit. Finally, he concludes that, “if you have high early mortality, I recommend you look into using a research-backed product with prebiotics, probiotics and hyper-immunized egg protein.”



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