Limiting disease exposure during cold weather calving

(Debra Murphy/RealAgriculture)

Cold weather calving is tricky and that can be compounded by rapidly changing weather conditions. Bringing cattle in to a new environment because of cold or wet weather can introduce a new management issue: pathogen spread.

Gerald Stokka, the extension veterinarian at North Dakota State University, says that increased snowfall or wet weather means that cow/calf operations need a plan to limit exposure of calves to potential pathogens. Stokka says as calves get up to nurse and build immunity to said pathogens you want some exposure, but you still need sufficient space and bedding to keep animals healthy.

Even for operations that have barns to move cows into to calve, there is risk to later-born calves as potential pathogens build up in enclosed spaces, says Stokka. If a calf contracts a pathogen, it is important to thoroughly clean the calf’s environment and keep the infected calf away from other animals to avoid spread.

Stokka says that understanding how pathogens spread is key. Mechanical transmission, meaning a pathogen is being spread by equipment being used and not cleaned, is one way diseases move. Ranchers and staff need to consider themselves as a source of transmission, too. If they are handling an infected animal, that pathogen can be spread on clothes and footwear.

Stokka says that a management strategy to move cows and calves through a facility to mitigate exposure. Weather changes effects the flow of animals through the facility, therefore there needs to be some flexibility in the process. Stokka says that limiting exposure is the top priority in management strategies.

Lack of space is the main challenge for operations in cold weather calving. Many operations are moving their calving season to a warmer time to have calving on pasture and limit exposure in facilities or close quarters. Stokka says if calving outside in the cold, snow clearing and fresh bedding is a big deal. Young calves have a hard time regulating their body temperature and spend most of the time laying down. These two facts tell how important snow clearing and bedding is to successful cold weather calving.

Stokka says the main takeaway for cold weather calving is that there is more labour and a need for comprehensive and dynamic management strategies.

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