Boost Those Babies


Your young calves may need some extra help…sometimes even before they’re born.

By: Gilda V. Bryant

Most of the time, calves are born without a hitch. But, when pregnant cows don’t regularly receive minerals, especially during the third trimester, their offspring may be weak, sick and unable to nurse. Supplementation with injectable minerals or vitamins as well as colostrum and electrolyte drenches may make a huge difference in that puny calf’s health and subsequent performance.

Kathy Whitman, D.V.M., clinical veterinarian at Nebraska’s Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center, reports that a poor, unthrifty calf can be the result of trace mineral deficiencies, especially selenium. Inadequate levels of vitamin A also cause complications in a newborn.

“If we have a problem, we want to address it as soon as possible,” Whitman advises. “Know what you’re dealing with, so you don’t inappropriately treat them. Get on top of it as soon as possible.”

For instance selenium deficiencies are common in Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, the Atlantic states and New England. Northern California, Oregon, Washington and parts of Idaho also lack this mineral. These areas produce low-selenium forages, and cattle tend to be low in this vital trace mineral. They often drop calves that have white muscle disease.

This serious affliction occurs in calves from one to three months of age, affecting muscles, ultimately causing lameness, progressive weakness and death. If the disease strikes calves that are one to four weeks of age, the heart muscle and respiratory muscles may also be affected.

“If you know you’re going to have an issue with white muscle disease when that calf is born, inject it with a selenium- vitamin E injectable right away,” recommends Whitman. “Not having the correct diagnosis is a big issue. If you give a selenium injection and you’re in an area that has plenty of selenium, you may inadvertently give the calf toxicosis. If it’s the inappropriate diagnosis, you’ve given him an injection and you’ve just wasted money.”

John Currin, D.V.M., clinical associate professor at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine reminds producers to check with local extension personnel, consultants or veterinarians to get proper supplementation recommendations.

“Overall, having the cow on the appropriate mineral supplement program is the most cost effective and the most important aspect of trying to maintain a calf’s adequate mineral level,” Currin reports.

Vitamin A maintains delicate tissues in the lining of the respiratory, digestive and reproductive tracts. Sick calves will have infections and the GI tract becomes hard and brittle, unable to absorb nutrients. Other symptoms include loss of appetite, rough hair coat and reduced feed efficiency. If the mama cow has a low vitamin A status, her calf will most likely be low in vitamin A. Whitman recommends injecting cows with vitamin A about five weeks before calving to build up this nutrient in the mother’s colostrum.

Injectables are an excellent treatment option because they are readily bioavailable when injected. They rapidly increase nutrients in theblood—often within eight to twelve hours. Nutrient-deficient animals immediately utilize the mineral or vitamin, and excess nutrients are stored in the liver for later use. Their improvement will be more significant than in an animal with just adequate mineral stores.

Currin says another benefit of injectables is that the producer knows his animals received the proper dosage. They are easy to obtain, although some require a veterinarian’s prescription. The downside of injectables includes rare cases of tissue reaction such as swelling, injection site lesions and in even more rare cases, anaphylactic shock. Since young calves aren’t heavily muscled, Whitman and Currin recommend giving injections subcutaneous – Sub Q – in the neck area in the triangle in front of the shoulder. Whitman uses a three-quarter-to-one inch, 18 gauge needle, entering under the skin at a 40 degree angle. (See product package insert for dosages and other key information). Occasionally, due to drought, harsh winter weather or stress, calves are born with limited trace minerals, such as copper, zinc, manganese and selenium.

These nutrients play a major role in the calf’s ability to grow and properly develop a healthy hair coat and feet. Carcass characteristics and feed efficiency depend on the trace minerals an animal receives as a young calf. Currin says trace minerals play an important role in the function of the calf’s immune system.

“If calves don’t have the appropriate nutrients, they don’t have these minerals present in a functional manner,” Whitman says. “Then they aren’t going to respond to any immunization you give them. You’re wasting your money and you have a sick calf. What’s probably even more important are the subclinical deficiencies that impact performance. We have enough to get by, but not enough to support good growth and health. These animals are always just chronic, poor doers. They get by and  survive, but they don’t do as well as their healthy counterparts.”

Good quality colostrum in adequate amounts is chockfull of vitamins and minerals, providing passive immunity to the calf. To receive antibodies from colostrum, calves must absorb immunoglobulin by a process called passive transfer. After 24 hours, a calf’s ability to take in antibodies decreases dramatically. If the calf has inadequate passive transfer, he will be sickly and probably will never reach peak performance.

Whitman provides a drench with the dam’s colostrum if a calf has had a difficult birth. She also provides commercial colostrum drenches for a weak, tired calf that won’t get up or if a calf’s mother dies.

Dehydration in these young animals can be serious because they lose electrolytes, the salts and minerals that conduct electrical impulses in the body. They are necessary for muscle contraction and energy generation.

“Drenching is a good way to give electrolytes to calves that have become dehydrated from scours,” Currin advises.

“For calves that have had their temperatures drop between 94 and 99 degrees Fahrenheit, a warm colostrum supplement drench doesn’t hurt,” Currin says. “Warm up calves that are in bad shape before you drench them, so you don’t stress them out. You can push them over the edge if they’re in bad shape.”

The biggest problem Whitman sees with these sick calves is that after injecting them with the vitamin or mineral it makes the calf better.

“But we really haven’t solved the problem,” she adds. “It started before this calf became deficient. There’s an underlying problem with our nutrition program or something else that needs to be addressed. We’ve got to go back and investigate why we had this issue to begin with.” Cattlemen should try to anticipate trouble, especially if they’ve experienced drought, stress or a hard winter and suspect their cows will have a mineral deficiency. Take care of cows before calves hit the ground.

“Adequate calf nutrition, vaccination program and mineral supplementation are key,” Whitman advises.

“Make sure you have adequate passive transfer that’s going to provide not only your immunoglobulin, but a good source of the vitamins and minerals that calf needs. Have a good relationship with your veterinarian for any diagnostics, questions or advice. If there is a need for supplementation, consult with your veterinarian to decide what the best course of action might be.”

Leave a Comment