Optimal Herd Health Starts at Birth

Kelly Reed, DVM Ruminant Field Technical Specialist and Ehsan Khafipour, PhD Director of Microbiome Research & Technical Support Diamond V

The triumphs of tomorrow start with good beginnings

How successful your milking herd is in the future begins with the health of calves being born today. By providing proper nutrition and management, you can get the calves gut microbiome and immune system off to a good start and help production, performance, and your bottom line.

  • Foundation of herd health starts with calves, and calf health starts with nutrition to support immune function and growth:

First thing’s first. Ask yourself this question. Are we providing a plane of nutrition for heifers to survive or to thrive? Calves are born with 100% of their genetic potential, and as managers, we can deliver an environment and nutrition to capitalize on that potential – or lose it. No, we will never have a perfect environment and calves will never be able to express 100% of their genetic potential. But we do want them to express as much of it as possible. Too often, we still find programs where calves are being fed on a plane of nutrition where we feed as little as we can get away with. It’s expensive to feed milk to these babies, whether that be whole milk or milk replacer, but what is the cost of not providing quality nutrition? Is this enough for them to get by? Perhaps. But optimal nutrition for them to thrive and be productive is the long-term goal.

Quality nourishment and proactive management are vital from day one. Establishing a healthy gut microbiome from birth can have a lasting impact on a calf’s life. Most of their immune system is found in the gut. That’s why gut health is linked to immune health. It’s also why providing high-quality colostrum is critical as it helps develop a calf’s microbiome and is an essential part in keeping them healthy. Every discussion on calves starts with colostrum because study after study

continues to build on the importance of calves receiving an adequate quantity and quality of it. At birth, a calf’s microbiome is immature. Colostrum helps develop it, protecting the gut lining and helping shape the immune system A good starting point for evaluating the effectiveness of the colostrum program is measuring serum total proteins in the blood of calves. Improved passive transfer results in healthier calves. However, according to the 2007 National Animal Health Monitoring System survey, approximately 19% of dairy heifer calves in the US had failure of passive transfer. To provide successful passive transfer of immunity, feed high quality colostrum, feed colostrum promptly after birth (within 1-2 hours), and minimize bacterial contamination of colostrum by proper udder preparation, collecting colostrum in a clean container, and other sanitation best practices. Colostrum management is the single most important management factor in determining calf health and survival.

  • Key is to establish and feed gut microbes for optimal growth:

 Why establishing a healthy microbiome is critical?  The rumen and intestine microbiomes contribute to most of a dairy animal’s functions. They play a key role in the digestion of nutrients, education of the immune system, functionality of gut epithelium, and setting up a proper gut environment. Members of the gut microbiome also produce a range of metabolites that impact the function of distant organs such as the lungs, liver, udder, and reproductive system. Therefore, establishing proper rumen and intestine microbiomes early in life and supporting their populations throughout different stages of life is pivotal for the long-term health and production efficiency of dairy calves and cows.

What factors affect establishment of the gut microbiome? Colonization of the rumen and intestines starts during and after birth. Microbes from the vaginal tract and cow environment are among the first colonizers followed by those introduced by colostrum, milk, liquid, and solid feed. Among these, colostrum and milk microbiota perhaps play a more important role in intestinal microbiome development than that of the rumen. This is speculated because in sucking calves, the majority of milk bypasses from the rumen to the abomasum through the esophageal groove to avoid wasteful fermentation in the rumen. As a result, the more extensive establishment of the rumen microbiome begins with an introduction of solid feed. During the first several weeks of a calf’s life, microbiomes of the rumen and hindgut are changing quickly from one composition to the next. The first group of colonizers change the gut environment in a way that promotes the growth of a certain group of secondary colonizers, and so on. Their adequate abundance maximizes calf growth and immune efficiency and promotes robustness and resilience of the microbiome against stressors and infectious agents.

How can we impact microbiome development? Calf nutrition and management strategies can play a critical role in setting up the proper rumen and intestine microbiomes for life. These strategies start with timely feeding of colostrum. Research at University of Alberta showed that delayed first colostrum feeding by 12 hours tends to decrease Bifidobacterium spp. and Lactobacillus spp. compared to calves fed colostrum immediately after birth. Adequate abundance of influential species is essential for proper interaction of calf and its microbiome and education of the immune system in the long run. Other strategies during the pre-weaning stage, such as feeding liquid calf diets fortified with probiotics and postbiotics, can improve proper colonization of calf microbiome, help prevent microbial imbalance, and reduce incidence of infectious diseases. Weaning age and stepwise vs. abrupt weaning strategies can also influence the speed and the extent of the rumen and intestine microbial transition. The transition from liquid to solid feed results in a


shift in site of digestion from the intestines to the rumen. Low rumen pH at weaning accompanied with an imbalance of rumen and intestine microbiomes can compromise epithelial barrier function and result in leaky gut. As a result, a weaning strategy that, for instance, include postbiotic supplementation can provide influential members of microbial community a competitive edge over opportunistic (e.g. faster growers) and pathogenic microorganisms. This prevents excessive growth of those species and helps maintain the diversity and balance of the rumen and intestines microbial communities. The outcome is a controlled fermentation and improved rumen and hindgut environment. All together, these strategies can minimize weaning associated feed intake depression, improve calf growth, and reduce susceptibility of calves to infectious diseases within and outside of the gut.

  • Better calf health leads to better performing cows:

Sufficient nutrition and management early in life not only improves performance, health, and the well-being of young calves, but it can also allow them to express their genetic potential for milk production and longevity. We need to recognize these effects and capitalize on them though our management and feeding practices. Through genetic selection in our breeding programs, we might achieve 150-300 lbs of milk production improvement per lactation. Striving for continued genetic improvement is important, but it’s key to remember that, as managers, we can have a significantly greater impact on lifetime performance.

It is well established, that calves fed to double their birthweight by 56 days of age will have improved milk production in both their first lactation and cumulatively across their lifetime performance. Across many studies, the first lactation improvement averaged 1500 lbs of milk, and after three lactations, 6000 lbs improved production. Research at Cornell, demonstrated that calves with just one antibiotic treatment while on milk produced over 1000 lbs less milk in their first lactation. The bottom line is better nutrition equals healthier and more resilient animals.

Lifetime performance is influenced by early life development. Dairy producers can manipulate the early life of a calf through nutrition. Ensuring a productive cow in the future will depend on feeding and managing the calf of today.

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