Your primary focus as a producer is providing your calves with what they need to grow into healthy adult animals. To do so, gut health is key. Good gut health allows the calf to efficiently utilize the nutrients in the feed, giving them a strong, stable and healthy start.
However, helping a calf meet its true genetic potential is often easier said than done when there’s a battle going on at the microscopic level inside the calf’s gut. Understanding gut health in cows and calves and how to be a more proactive producer regarding your herd’s health will impact the overall efficiency and success of your operation.
Understanding gut health in cows and young calves
“An animal’s gastrointestinal tract is made up of billions of bacteria,” said Dr. Shelby Roberts, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Alltech Center for Animal Nutrigenomics and Applied Animal Nutrition. “This bacterial population is comprised of both some pathogenic bacteria and other bacteria that are beneficial to the animal. In a healthy gut, these bacteria keep each other in balance. Gut health problems start when this balance becomes offset and the bad bacteria start to outnumber the good bacteria.”
For bad bacteria to cause trouble, they must first attach to the gut, where they start to multiply. Antibiotics kill bad bacteria, but they can also kill good bacteria, so taking a different, more proactive approach when addressing calf gut health can be beneficial.
“Maintaining the good gut bacteria, while ridding the system of the bad bugs, is essential to promoting gut health,” Roberts said.
Good gut health benefits cattle in a few ways, including:
- The efficient utilization of feed
- Healthy weight gain
- Gut integrity
Taking a proactive approach to gut health
Traditionally, the gut has been thought of as just another part of the digestive system. However, we also know that it is an active component of the immune system.
Considering the dual function of the gut, one way to achieve optimum gut health in calves is to use a feed supplement created to promote good bacteria and support natural defenses. This preventative approach to animal health can help reduce the number of sick calves and, in turn, decrease the amount of antibiotic treatments as well. This can save producers valuable time and money during the busy calving season.
Over the last 20 years, Alltech has conducted research trials that have evaluated management practices that utilize nutritional technologies and the effects of those technologies on calf health and performance. Certain high-quality prebiotics, for example, have been proven to positively impact calf gut health. Prebiotics are indigestible food ingredients that selectively stimulate the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of microbes in the gut.
Establishing strong calf immunity starts with the dam
- At birth, calves are born with a naïve immune system due to maternal antibodies being unable to pass through the placenta, which leaves calves susceptible to disease.
- Colostrum, the first milk produced at calving, is one of the most important components of calf health. Colostrum is a calf’s initial source of the antibodies that are essential for protecting young calves until their immune systems are fully developed, which takes 1 to 2 months.
- Studies of perinatal mortality indicate that 4–12% of calves are born dead or die within 24 hours of birth. Numerous risk factors contribute to higher perinatal mortality rates, including failed antibody transfer from dam to calf, which only reinforces the importance of colostrum and early nutritional management for calves.
- There are numerous factors that can affect colostrum quality, including the dam’s age, breed and nutrition. Making sure that the dam’s nutritional requirements are being met prior to calving allows the dam to pass along quality stored colostrum to the calf.
Better health for improved performance
Producers spend a lot of time and money trying to improve the genetics of their herds. Calves that have both strong immune system development and a healthy gastrointestinal tract will be better able to utilize nutrients efficiently and reach their genetic potential.
“If we can make calves healthier and reduce the energy they spend keeping the bad bacteria in balance, it should result in better performance,” Roberts explained.
The principle of improved gut health for improved performance is best applied during periods of stress, such as weaning and feedlot arrival. These stressful times negatively impact animal health and growth due to exposure to new pathogens and periods of decreased feed intake. Improved performance resulting from increased efficiency can mean more money in the producer’s pocket. This can be achieved through:
- Improved animal growth (average daily gains)
- Reductions in calf treatments and morbidities
Trials have shown that, without a doubt, enhanced calf health and immunity translate to better growth and gains.
“Being proactive with the use of nutritional technologies and establishing a healthy gut could give a producer’s calves the leg up they need to reach their genetic potential,” Roberts said.
by Dr. Shelby Roberts, Alltech