Ask the Vet

Solving Mystery Deaths of Calves

Plan ahead for a necropsy, or autopsy, to find out why calves between 1 and 4 months of age are dying. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Victoria Myers)

Question: We run two beef herds across different farms and are experiencing an unusually high number of calf deaths. The dead calves range in age from 1 month to 4 months. No cows have died. There are no adjoining herds. We do not vaccinate. We plan on taking the next dead calf to our state lab for an autopsy, as vets who work on cattle are few and far between here.

Answer: You are on the right path to get a necropsy, or autopsy, done. The quicker you can get a dead or dying calf to the lab, the better. A few hours in the heat can make a diagnosis difficult because of tissue deterioration. So my first suggestion is to develop a plan to handle this.

Next, put a priority on establishing a relationship with a veterinarian. One of the reasons large animal veterinarians are scarce is that they can't make a living if the only time a producer calls them is when they have an emergency. Part of good management is moving to a controlled breeding season. This leads to a controlled calving season, and with calves coming in a shorter time-frame, it's easier to watch them for problems. It also allows optimal timing for preventive care, including vaccinations, deworming, castrations and dehorning. Cows can be fed for their production stage, which decreases feed cost and improves production. And it opens the door for procedures like pregnancy-checking and breeding soundness evaluations.

Having a veterinarian on your farm on a regular basis allows him or her to make suggestions on things like facility improvements, pastures, hay, nutrition, genetics, culling, marketing and, of course, herd health. This can significantly enhance his value to you. Additionally, it establishes what the government calls a "veterinarian-client-patient relationship," which allows the veterinarian to legally prescribe treatments in some cases without seeing the animal.

To address your health situation more directly, I'd say, until proven otherwise, acute death of calves without any observed signs is blackleg or some other clostridial disease. Your herd immunity may be very low since the cows have not been vaccinated. Clostridial bacteria form spores, which can survive in the soil seemingly forever. All farms should be considered contaminated. The bacterin (vaccine) for these diseases is very effective and economical. You have probably buried more dollars than a lifetime of "blackleg vaccines" would cost. Hopefully your necropsy will give you a definitive answer and a solution.

Please contact your veterinarian for questions pertaining to the health of your herd. Every operation is unique, and the information in this column does not pertain to all situations. This is not intended as medical advice, but is purely for informational purposes.