Researchers put veal calf health under the microscope

It’s true that most male calves won’t be members of a herd for long. Nonetheless, being in good health is vital for their success on the veal or dairy beef farm where they’re headed.

And maintaining good health is becoming more of a challenge in the rapidly changing livestock industry.

Consumer demands for more natural production approaches and pressure from all sides for reduced antimicrobials means producers and their veterinarians have to work harder than ever to maintain high health status.

It’s already tough going for calves. Proper calving management, colostrum management, feeding and housing on dairy farms are critical to their health, male or female.

For example, male calves transferred to veal farms often face disease challenges resulting from transportation stress, placement into a new housing facility, mixing with calves from other farms, and adapting to a new diet — all within the first two weeks of life, when their immunity and digestive systems have only started to develop.

Such challenges led University of Guelph veterinary professors Dave Kelton and Todd Duffield, and graduate student Dave Renaud on a two-year project to look at risk factors impacting male calf health in Canada. Renaud started working at a milk-fed veal facility immediately after graduating from the Ontario Veterinary College. Kelton and Duffield, dairy experts, were his supervisors at the college.

With support from Veal Farmers of Ontario, Dairy Farmers of Ontario, Dairy Farmers of Canada, Grober Nutrition, Mapleview Agri Ltd. and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, the researchers followed calves through their journey from birth to harvest. They started with a look at management practices impacting male calves on over 1,000 Canadian dairy farms, through the National Dairy Study.

Renaud said overall, they found most male calves were treated well.

However, reports from producers showed nine percent of them did not always feed colostrum to male calves, an important step in helping calves get established.

As well, 17 percent fed male and female calves differently. Those feeding details are not known, but Renaud suspects they are not in favour of male calves.

“Both of these situations create challenges for calves as they move to veal or dairy beef farms,” says Renaud. “Both colostrum and nutrition have both been shown to impact disease resistance, so having all calves receive colostrum and proper nutrition is critical to maintaining and improving health.”

On dairy farms, the researchers tried to identify risk management practices associated with herd mortality. There, they found the keys to low mortality were using long straw as the main bedding type, having a nipple bottle as the principal feeding method of colostrum, and having a herd veterinarian that asked about the health and performance of the calves.

The other main part of their study focused on evaluating calves when they arrived at a veal facility in Ontario.

There, the researchers evaluated 5,000 calves with a brief clinical exam, and took blood samples. They kept track of calves that died to see which factors identified at arrival were associated with mortality.

“We found calves at high-risk for mortality can be identified at arrival,” says Renaud. “Many of their health abnormalities are identifiable.”

For example, the researchers saw specific clinical factors associated with mortality — dehydration, navel infections, low body weight, low blood cholesterol and low immunoglobulin G (IgG). They are now looking at a trial to evaluate selective treatment of these high-risk calves.

Renaud says mortality and morbidity challenges need to be addressed moving forward, to improve animal health and welfare while creating an economically sustainable industry that consumers will support.

He says veterinarians need to do their part to make sure this happens — they can initiate discussions and play a key role in implementing changes in management practices to improve disease control.

But this doesn’t always happen.

“A surprising finding from the National Dairy Study was the low number of producers who reported that their veterinarian routinely and actively inquired about the health and performance of their calves,” he says. “Veterinarians need to engage in discussions with clients regarding calf health management, to identify problems early and put in place corrective management practices, as well as aid in therapeutic decision-making.”

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