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Weaning management for optimum health of suckler beef calves


Dr. Bernie Earley & Dr. Mark McGee from the Teagasc Animal & Grassland Research & Innovation Centre discuss weaning management for optimum health of suckler beef calves. They cover weanling management and health; control of stomach worms, lungworm & fluke; prevention of pneumonia and other diseases.

Weanling management

In suckler herds, calves generally remain with the cows at pasture until they are weaned usually between 6 and 9 months old.  In addition to removal from the cow, the weaning procedure may be compounded by other stressors occurring around the same time, e.g. change of diet (grass and milk to conserved feed with or without concentrates), change of environment (outdoors to indoors), and transport/marketing. Weaning therefore can be a multi-factorial stressor, in which, nutritional, physical, and psychological stress are combined. Psychological stress is present in the form of maternal separation and social disruption, whereas  nutritional and physical stressors are often present through the introduction and adaptation to a novel diet and environment. Research at Teagasc, Grange has shown that reducing the cumulative effect of multiple stressors around weaning time results in a less marked stress response in the calf.   

Weanling health

An optimal herd health programme should be designed to prevent major disease and it is important to consult with a veterinary practitioner prior to weaning, to discuss the prevalent diseases and associated risks specific to the farm.  Internal parasites (stomach worms, hoose and fluke) and respiratory disease are the two main health concerns that affect weanlings.

Control of stomach worms, lungworm and fluke

Control programmes for stomach worms, lungworm and fluke should be developed in consultation with a veterinary practitioner. The type of soil, grazing system, stocking rates, previous history of problems, faecal testing and clinical assessment should be considered when determining when to dose and what product to dose with. The time interval between dosing will depend on the product used.

  • Weanlings should be dosed with an anthelmintic effective against stomach worms (Ostertagia type II) and lungworm (Dictyocaulus).  Lungworm (hoose) infection is a major cause of disease and clinical signs are persistent coughing and severe pneumonia.
  • Liver fluke (Fasciolosis) is a common parasitic disease caused by Fasciola hepatica. The disease manifests itself mainly in two forms, acute and chronic. During wet summer conditions, grazing cattle ingest the intermediate stages of the fluke from contaminated pasture with invasion of the liver causing disease during the winter months. The major presenting clinical findings are persistent diarrhoea and chronic weight loss with resultant poor thrive. A control programme should include a flukicide treatment.

Prevention of pneumonia in weanlings

The primary cause of pneumonia (respiratory disease) in weanlings is initially attributable to viruses such as bovine herpes virus-1 (BoHv-1/infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR)), bovine respiratory syncytial virus (BRSV), bovine parainfluenza-3 virus (BPI-3 virus), and bovine virus diarrhoea/mucosal disease (BVD/MD virus) and in many cases is followed by secondary bacterial infections usually caused by Mannheimia (Pasteurella) haemolytica and Mycoplasma bovis.

To ensure a healthy weanling, the aim is to minimise their exposure to disease, and maximise their defence against disease:

  • Minimising a calf’s exposure to disease, may be achieved through the use of a closed herd, screened replacements and positive herd immunity.
  • Good housing conditions (e.g. adequate ventilation and space) and good stockmanship also play a key role in preventing respiratory disease.
  • Outbreaks of pneumonia amongst weanlings are considered to be highly associated with situations where the immune system is compromised. These risk factors include the stresses associated with weaning, as described above, and should be minimised where possible. Nutrient deficiency can significantly suppress the immune system, resulting in a poor response to vaccination, as well as resulting in calves that are unable to fight off infections. Furthermore, adequate nutrition minimises the long-term negative effects of disease and permits a more rapid recovery.
  • A disease prevention programme for pneumonia usually involves vaccination. Viral specific vaccines are available but their effectiveness is dependent on management procedures and timing of administration. Depending on the causative agent (virus) and product, the vaccine should be administered prior to weaning, bearing in mind that some products require a booster dose. Where possible, do not mix calves from different sources until after the vaccinations have had time to produce immunity (2 to 3 weeks).
  • It is vital, irrespective of the programme, that vaccines are stored and administered as per manufacturer’s instructions including being given at the right time, at the right dose and route of administration and right interval between primary and booster (if required).
  • It is also very important that vaccines are not given to sick calves as sick, or stressed calves will not respond appropriately to the vaccine.
  • Work in close association with a veterinary practitioner. Collection of nasal mucous samples or swabs for laboratory diagnosis will direct the selection of the appropriate vaccine and/or antibiotic treatment.
  • Regular temperature checking is also useful for monitoring clinical problems.
  • Disbudding of calves at a young age is recommended. (Disbudding of calves means removing the very early developing horn base to prevent horn growth with a hot iron). It is much more desirable to disbud calves than to dehorn them at a later stage in life.
  • Castration: Castration should not take place within 4 weeks prior to or following weaning.
  • In summary, a programme for minimising the negative effects of disease in newly weaned calves includes: reduced exposure to disease, minimal stress, adequate nutrition, parasite control, and timely and appropriate vaccination and/or treatment of animals.

Further reading: Management of the Suckler Calf at Weaning to Prevent Pneumonia by Animal Health Ireland
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