Dairy Cattle and Clostridial Bacteria: Questions and Answers

Date of publication : 6/6/2008
Source : University of Minnesota Dairy Extension
Young calves face many challenges as they grow towards adulthood. A young calf can look good during the morning feeding, not look well at noon, and be dead before the end of the day. What is the most common reason for such sudden death? More than likely, Clostridial bacteria found a favorable growth environment in the calf's gut, and potent toxins produced by the bacterial growth killed the calf.

So what can we do about this problem? What do we look for to make management decisions regarding this pathogen? Contacting your local veterinarian is a good start. He/she is the best qualified professional to help you with infectious diseases on your farm. Following are some questions and answers regarding the Clostridial problem:

1. Where do Clostridial bacteria come from?
Cattle may be infected by as many as nine different types of Clostridial bacteria. Clostridium perfringens types A, B, and C tend to be the primary types that cause most of the infections among young calves. Clostridium perfringens is our constant companion. In very small numbers they are likely to be present in the gut of most cattle, young and adult. Depending on the type, they may come from the soil, poorly preserved ensiled feeds and/or the housing environment. Think of them as being everywhere, at least in low concentrations.

2. Why are Clostridial bacteria a problem?
Of all of the types of Clostridium perfringens, type C is the pathogen most frequently implicated in the death of young calves. Calves refuse to eat and become weak, and they often have a distended or painful abdomen. Onset of death is sudden. Frequently, a newborn calf dies even before she can develop diarrhea. Treatment success is very low. Clostridium perfringens type A infections occur less frequently among young calves than type C. But when they do, pain and depression are common symptoms. Like type C infections, type A infections are often accompanied by a swollen gut, refusal to eat and inability to stand. Death usually occurs within a day after the first symptoms are seen. Similar to type C infections, type A treatment success is dismally low.

3. Why did this calf get sick and not the one next to her?
Unlike salmonella or mycoplasma infections, Clostridial diseases are not spread from calf to calf. Most of the time when calves die from Clostridium perfringens, there are management issues that promote a favorable growth environment in the gut. Once the right environment occurs, the opportunistic Clostridium perfringens move into an explosive growth phase. For example, calves may be exposed to an exceptionally high dose of the bacteria from the common sources of contaminated colostrums or housing. A heavy load of Clostridium perfringens bacteria can always overwhelm a calf's immune defenses. Alternatively, even when bacteria exposure is low, rearing methods may create gut conditions that are perfect for Clostridium perfringens growth.

4. What can a dairy do differently?
First, give calves strong immune defenses. Our most efficient means of defense is vaccination. Talk with your herd veterinarian about your whole herd Clostridial bacteria vaccination program. Does it include initial and booster injections for heifers? It should also have booster injections for adult cows. Based on the herd health experience, you and your veterinarian can choose the appropriate products and timing for injections.

Evaluate your colostrum management program. If you have not recently checked blood serum total protein (BSTP) levels among young calves 1 to 7 days old, this is a good time to do it. At least eight out of ten samples should be at least 5.0 or higher; none should be as low as 4.5. If your BSTP values are too low, check out the three critical practices for colostrums feeding:

     * as soon as possible after birth
     * highest antibody concentration available
     * enough volume to provide many antibodies

Second, reduce exposure so that there are fewer unwelcome bacteria in the gut to make trouble. This critical area of management starts at calving. Which of these two calves will have a better start: one born in a clean calving pen; or the one born in the alley of a freestall barn? Preventing fecal:oral transfer of bacteria from adult cow manure is the primary reason for removing a calf from her dam as soon as possible after the calf is able to stand. Moving a calf to clean housing right away is a best management practice. Using a contaminated calf box or bucket on a skid steer loader is not a good practice, and using a cattle trailer contaminated with adult cow manure is equally undesirable.

In summary, good management practices and quality feed are the first steps in preventing death losses due to Clostridium bacteria.

By Wayne Schoper
Brown/Nicollet Extension Educator
University of Minnesota Extension website - Dairy Connection Articles

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