Management Recommendations: Neonatal diarrhea

Approximately 50% of all calf losses are due to diarrheal diseases. Yet many of these illnesses could be prevented through good management.

Neonatal diarrhea is a factorial disease, which means that it can be caused by infectious agents such as E.coli, rotaviruses, coronaviruses or cryptosporidia, but also by non-infectious causes such as stress or feeding errors.

In the case of neonatal diarrhea (defined as diarrhea in calves up to 4 weeks of age), it is important to understand that the pathogens causing the disease can also be detected on farms with healthy calves without diarrhea problems. The disease breaks out when there is a disbalance between calf resistance and infection pressure. This suggests that there are two directions of management to protect the calf from diarrheal disease. One is to increase the calf’s resistance and the other is to decrease the infection pressure on the calf.

The most important point to increase the calf’s resistance is colostrum supply. A supply with lots of nutrients through large amounts of milk, is also helpful.

To reduce the infection pressure on the calf, attention should be paid to a clean calving environment, intermediate disinfection of the housing, and hygiene while milk-feeding the calves.

But what does this mean for the farms?

As with other diseases, it is important to first optimize the colostrum strategy. This gives the foundation for optimal calf immunity. For this purpose, it is crucial to milk the cow quickly after birth, for that the calf can drink three liters of colostrum within the first four hours of life and a total of four liters within the first 12 hours of life. In addition, the colostrum should be tested to ensure a high quality (at least 22 Brix). For more information on colostrum, see our article.

The feeding strategy following the colostrum supply, is also crucial. The calf can develop diarrhea due to feeding errors, such as inappropriate milk temperature, frequently changing composition or concentration of the milk.

Optimally, the calf will receive 20% of its body weight in milk during the first three weeks of life (at a birth weight of 35-45 kg, this corresponds to 7-9 liters), or will be fed directly ad libitum. The high nutrient intake strengthens the calf’s immune defense, and high growth rates of more than 1,000 g per day can also be achieved. If, on the other hand, as it was often recommended in the past, the milk intake is severely limited to about 4 liters per day, the calf is less able to defend itself against pathogens.

The choice of whether to feed milk replacer (MAT) or milk can also contribute to the development of a diarrhea problem. This is because initially, calves can only digest milk protein. Therefore, MAT with vegetable proteins is strongly discouraged to avoid negatively affecting the calf’s digestion. A MAT with 25-27% crude protein is optimal. Switching between MAT and milk should always be done slowly. Otherwise, there is also a risk of diarrhea.

Milk should always be offered from a nursing bucket to allow physiological posture and thus sip drinking into the abomasum and avoid drinking into the rumen. Water should also be offered from the first day of life, but never from a nursing bucket, but from a bowl or regular bucket. This is because water, unlike milk, should not enter the abomasum, otherwise it will interfere with rennet coagulation.

To keep pathogen concentrations as low as possible, nursing buckets should be rinsed out hot after each feeding. When changing calves, it is important to wash and disinfect the housing with a pressure washer. In addition, each calf is given a new drinking nipple when it is housed.

The 5 most important management aspects are summarized in English with the 5 C’s: Colostrum, Cleanliness, Comfort, Calories, and Consistency.

Pathogens that cause diseases can be detected on all farms. However, if a calf is provided with clean surroundings, good colostrum and consistent feeding with plenty of calories, it can remain disease-free even if it comes into contact with pathogens.

Our expert tips in the checklist:

  • Optimize colostrum supply:
    3 liters in first 4 hours, total 4 liters in first 12 hours
    Test colostrum quality (optimal >22% Brix)
  • Feed 20% of body weight, or ad-libitum
  • Milk always from feeding bucket, water always from regular bucket/bowl
  • Hygiene during feeding and stabling

If, despite good management, an outbreak of diarrhea occurs, our Calf Monitoring System can help you detect them early and give you initial recommendations on what steps to take in this case. We will be happy to explain the advantages this has for you in a personal consultation.

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