Acidosis and Shipping Fever

Shedding of Disease-causing Pathogens in Cattle

By Acidosis and Shipping Fever, Cattle, Cow-Calf, Feedlot, Pre-Conditioning No Comments

Almost every multi-celled organism on the planet is capable of shedding pathogens of one sort or another. In environments with large, dense populations, such as those of cattle, shedding of disease-causing viruses and bacteria can cause widespread disease rapidly. An understanding of how shedding occurs amongst cattle provides insight into preventing the outbreak of disease and consequential profit loss.

What is shedding?

Shedding is the expulsion of disease-causing microorganisms into the environment. When a pathogen has matured and reproduced within the host’s body, it must find a way to spread. Some of the most common ways cattle shed these germs is through their manure, coughing and sneezing and sharing common feeding and watering areas. When there are multiple animals living within close quarters, the likelihood of widespread infection increases.

How does shedding occur?

Viral, bacterial and fungal shedding occur via a variety of routes – pathogens can be introduced into the environment via the GI tract (Escherichia coli), respiratory tract (bovine respiratory syncytial virus – BRSV), oro-nasal (foot-and-mouth disease virus – FMDV and Mycobacterium bovis), ocular (infectious conjunctivitis – pink eye), reproductive tract (brucellosis) and even through the skin and hooves (dermatophytosis – ring worm).

Respiratory Tract

Shedding via the respiratory tract is perhaps the most common cause of infection in cattle. Secretions such as saliva and mucus can be aerosolized when an animal coughs or even just breathes, forcing millions of disease-causing pathogens into the environment. Some of these diseases are airborne and must be inhaled by other animals to cause infection, while others can land on fur or other surfaces and be taken into the nasal or oral cavity and lead to infection.

The incidence of transmission (particularly with inhaled microorganisms) increases exponentially when there are close quarters, such as a cattle transport or crowded pens at a sale barn or feedlot. Animals that are stressed and compromised will be more likely to contract diseases in these environments than those that are healthy and in a positive energy balance.

GI Tract

GI tract shedding is another common route for infection, as manure is regularly excreted into the environment and animals will tread through it, lay in and then, while browsing or cleaning themselves or each other, ingest the pathogens contained in the infected manure. Another issue is housing that is not frequently cleaned of excrement. Microorganisms can thrive in wet conditions, populating not just the fecal matter but the soil, as well. Feed bunks and watering sources may become contaminated with infected feces or soil, creating an even larger problem, as the majority of animals in a given space will be exposed.

Bacterial infections are of particular concern with this route of spread. Viral contagions often cannot live outside of a host for extended periods of time; however, many bacterial agents are capable of living in a non-host environment for extended periods of time and through extreme weather fluctuations. Therefore, infections such as Salmonella sp. and E. coli can get out-of-hand so quickly.

Oro-nasal Route

Some infectious microorganisms are spread easily via the oro-nasal route through saliva and mucous membrane secretions. This includes diseases such as foot-and-mouth-disease virus (FMDV) and Bovine papular stomatitis. An animal must come in direct contact with the contaminated surface, such as feed bunks or through licking or touching noses with an infected animal.

Ocular Route

Certain diseases such as pink eye are spread through contact with contaminated secretions from the eyes, and to a lesser extent the nose and mouth, due to the structure of the nasolacrimal ducts. The majority of eye infections in cattle are caused by bacteria. The most common means of spread for these infections is direct contact or rubbing of faces on fences, feeders, etc. It is also possible for these secretions to be deposited on grass or brush where other cattle may frequent and become exposed.

Genital Route

Brucellosis sp. are commonly shed through the reproductive tract in cattle. Placental fluids and vaginal discharges of infected cows can infect other cattle that may lick the infected animal. Feed and water sources can also become easily contaminated, creating the potential for widespread infection.

Additionally, there are numerous venereal diseases that can be shed but are only spread through the mating of infected animals, making these pathogens less likely to affect feedlot operators.

While the shedding of infectious microorganisms cannot be completely prevented, measures can be taken to help keep the impact to a minimum. Reducing stresses on animals, including providing high-quality feed and clean water, a calm environment and proper handling and a solid sick treatment protocol can go a long way towards helping prevent disease outbreaks in cattle operations.

The Impact of Mannheimia haemolytica on the High-Risk Herd

By Acidosis and Shipping Fever, Cattle, Feedlot No Comments

Mannheimia haemolytica is a bacterial contagion that is one of the main organisms responsible for the broader scope of bovine respiratory disease (BRD). M. haemolytica is frequently found in conjunction with Pasteurella multocida, with both bacteria typically presenting as secondary infections in compromised animals (most commonly following viral infections or significant stress events). It often leads to pneumonia, causing irreversible lung damage in the infected cow.

Prevalence of M. haemolytica in the Feedlot Setting

While M. haemolytica is fairly common to find in the living environments and upper respiratory tracts of most healthy cattle without causing issues, it does lead to secondary infections amongst compromised high-risk feeder cattle. In the case of M. haemolytica, it is responsible for pneumonia that can, at best damage the lungs, and at worst result in mortality of the infected individual.

In a study from the University of Georgia1, nasopharyngeal swabs (NPS) were taken during processing from a group of 169 high-risk feeder, sale barn bull and steer calves. They were also given the macrolide antimicrobial tulathromycin (2.5 mg/kg SQ) upon arrival at processing. Of those cattle, 27 (16%) swabbed positive for M. haemolytica (with 1 cow or 3.7% swabbing positive for a multi-drug resistant strain [MDR] of M. haemolytica). At 10 – 14 days a second NPS was taken from each of the 169 cattle with an alarming 123 (72.8%) showing positive cultures for M. haemolytica with 122 animals testing positive for a MDR strain of M. haemolytica. This offers a good idea of just how common it is to find M. haemolytica in high-risk stocker cattle and the waning or ineffective results seen with metaphylactic use on these groups.

How M. haemolytica Gains a Foothold in the Feedlot

Stocker cattle tend to be a mixed lot – some are healthy while others are in poor condition when they reach the sale barn. Knowing the background of any given sale barn calf is almost impossible.

  • Was it vaccinated properly?
  • Did the mother receive adequate nutrition during and after her pregnancy?
  • Was she vaccinated properly to ensure her and her calf’s immunity?
  • Did that calf have adequate weaning time?
  • How long has it been since its last meal? Is it already experiencing sub-acute ruminal acidosis (SARA)?

Unfortunately, these factors can have a huge effect on a calf’s ability to fight off disease and withstand the stresses of transitioning from its point of origin to the preconditioner’s lot.

M. haemolytica and Shipping Fever

“Shipping fever” is the common term for bovine respiratory disease (BRD), a complex of multiple diseases that can have detrimental impacts on stocker cattle. There are numerous viral diseases at play when looking at BRD – the most common include Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis (IBR), Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD – also a major contributor to scours), Parainfluenza Type-3 Virus (PI-3) and Bovine Respiratory Synctial Virus (BRSV).

Animals with weak or compromised immune systems are at greatest risk for developing shipping fever. With the stress of shipping – this includes handling, transport, lack of feed and water during transport, inhospitable weather and/or truck conditions, etc. – the calf’s immunity is put under significant stress. Because shipping fever is so prevalent, it’s common practice to administer a metaphylactic such as tulathromycin as they’re loaded for transport to help combat any secondary bacterial diseases that could contribute to “shipping fever”. Unfortunately, while this may help with bacterial infections that are already present, it doesn’t typically last long enough to address later-onset infections such as M. haemolytica.

When a cow is experiencing the ravages of shipping fever the immune system is under siege.  It is at this point that M. haemolytica can become a full-blown disease, invading the lungs, and causing pneumonia. As mentioned above, even with a metaphylaxis, the incubation time of M. haemolytica is such that it comes to fruition around the time the effects of the metaphylactic agent will be dwindling.

In some cases, cattle may contract M. haemolytica and recover without intervention; it’s often assumed that they “got over it” but the reality is that a good deal of lung damage may have occurred. This can become evident in that cow’s slower or reduced gain, stamina during handling, etc.

What Makes High-Risk Cattle Susceptible to M. haemolytica?

A high-risk cow is already in the “danger zone” for developing numerous problems. These cattle fall into several loose categories that can make them incredibly vulnerable to disease. It’s important to remember that the majority of a cow’s immune system lies within the rumen (about 80%). When viewed from that angle, it is no wonder that so many calves experience shipping fever and subsequent M. haemolytica secondary infections. Some of the factors that predispose a calf to issues include:

  • Unweaned calves. A calf that has not been properly weaned has not learned to eat on its own. It is also likely that its rumen is not fully developed, making it difficult for it to produce the necessary immunity to fight off disease. A calf that isn’t yet eating on its own can suffer from scours and acidosis.
  • Underweight calves. If a calf goes into the sale barn underweight it will surely arrive at the feedlot even more depleted. According to a review on transportation shrink by Ohio State University Extension, “Most of the shrinkage occurs during loading and in the first part (25 miles) of a trip. Cattle may lose half as much in 25 miles as they do in 200 miles. As the time increases, so does shrinkage, but at a slower rate than the first few miles.”2
  • Generally stressed calves. Calves that are being handled, moved to new environs, comingled with new cattle, etc., experience a high level of stress. Excessive stress releases cortisol which suppresses the immune system.
  • Undeveloped or under-developed rumens. Calves that have not been properly weaned and started on forage tend to have undeveloped rumens. This means that it is difficult to get them to start feeding and if and when they do, they don’t have the proper gut flora to adequately ruminate their feed.
  • Calves that refuse to eat or drink. In instances where a calf refuses to take in feed and water, they become quickly predisposed to being thrown into SARA.
  • Excessive antibiotic use prior to shipping. A metaphylactic program can be a vital part of keeping a herd healthy, however, the overuse or use of the wrong antibiotics can kill off beneficial gut flora, making it impossible for the rumen to function at peak levels.

Because the majority of a cow’s immune system lies within the gut, any one of the points above, or a combination of, can spell disaster for a calf with a weak rumen. This usually indicates it will have an equally weak immune system.

Use of Metaphylactics and M. haemolytica

The use of metaphylactics in the stocker cattle industry has proven to be both a blessing and a curse. When used prudently and properly, metaphylactics can help prevent widespread disease amongst groups of incoming cattle. However, if used carelessly or in excess, the benefits of metaphylactic use quickly become null.

Metaphylactics are used throughout an entire group of cattle under the assumption that they may be sick or will become sick in the near future. They might be administered in the form of an injection or added to feed. This is a much less time-consuming process than pulling individual sick calves and treating them independently of the herd.

A healthy calf with a strong immune system should be able to fight off serious infection on its own. The help of a metaphylactic agent may nip in the bud many diseases that are lurking but haven’t taken hold. This is assuming that the calf actually receives a therapeutic dose of the chosen drug. In cases when the metaphylactic is added to the feed, the consumption and dosage can be quite variable.

Consider a calf that is not fully weaned or is stressed and not eating. It may consume small amounts of treated grain, but not enough to achieve therapeutic drug levels adequate enough to treat the problem. This is when antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria develop and create a bigger issue than the one originally being treated.

Unfortunately, while metaphylactic use may be effective against many bacterial diseases, it is usually not particularly helpful in the case of M. haemolytica. This is because of the longer incubation time of M. haemolytica. If a calf is exposed to Mannheimia haemolytica at the sale barn or upon reaching its destination, it still has about two weeks before it might show any signs of illness. In the case of a calf given a metaphylactic at the time of sale or when arriving at the feedlot, that drug’s efficacy will be wearing off at around the same time that the incubation period for M. haemolytica will be ending. This creates the perfect timing for the bacteria to multiply and flourish in the body of the calf.

The other piece of this puzzle is the effect antibiotics can have on ruminal health. If a calf already has a weakened immune system with poor ruminal development, the likelihood that the metaphylactic agent used will destroy any remaining gut flora and thus throw the calf into scours and/or acidosis increases exponentially.

Why Immune System Development is Key in Preventing M. haemolytica

As previously mentioned, around 80% of a calf’s immune system lies in its rumen. Much of this immunity is received from its mother until it is naturally weaned. Because most calves must be prematurely weaned, this puts them at a disadvantage for developing a mature, fully functioning immune system.

The importance of a heifer’s health cannot be stressed enough when it comes to giving calves the best possible chance to start out healthy and realize maximum gains. A heifer that is depleted or experiencing SARA is not going to be able to put the necessary resources towards the development of her calf. Her immune system will be stressed, meaning the antibodies she is passing on, both in-utero and post-partum will not be nearly as potent as those that come from a healthy dam.

The milk quality will also be compromised – vital nutrients and other components that encourage proper development of a calf will be lacking. This makes it likely that the calf will require more milk to get its minimum requirements met, further depleting the dam.

Properly preparing a heifer for calving can save time and vital resources. A proper vaccination program for all cows is essential to help guarantee a calf’s latent immunity. This helps not only prevent scours in the post-natal calf, but also allows them to receive adequate antibodies throughout the duration of their nursing time.

Other Ways to Reduce the Prevalence of Shipping Fever and M. haemolytica

While there is no magic bullet for completely eliminating shipping fever or M. haemolytica, the risks can be greatly reduced.

The top way to keep the rumen functioning (and thus the immune system) is to get calves eating and drinking right away. They can be on transport trucks anywhere from a few hours to a few days without access to feed or water. During this time their ruminal health is incredibly compromised, predisposing them to acidosis and scours. As the acid concentration in the rumen increases, the appetite wanes, making it more and more difficult to get calves to consume feed and water. The best way to combat this is to bring the ruminal pH back into balance, thus stimulating the appetite.

It’s also important that a calf’s immunity start being built from day one. This includes ensuring that it is receiving adequate amounts of high-quality milk from the mother and not being exposed to stressors such as weather extremes, crowded living spaces, dirty environs or being subjected to improper or excessive handling. This naturally keeps the pH in check; when a calf is exposed to stress, administering buffering agents can stop the SARA process in its tracks.

Ensuring that the immunity continues to function benefits an animal in two ways – it keeps the calf on the right track for proper immune development and increases the efficacy of vaccinations. The chances of a healthy calf developing shipping fever and subsequent M. haemolytica go down markedly when a good care protocol is followed.

While it’s not possible to ensure that every calf is completely free of disease, it is possible to minimize the impact of shipping fever and M. haemolytica on the overall herd. The fewer animals that become sick, the greater the realized profits come harvest time. Prudence in antibiotic use and a keen eye on ruminal health can make the difference between a healthy, productive herd and one that sees more losses than gains.

Six Tips for Successfully Grazing Cornstalks

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Finding economical feed sources that provide adequate nutrition is a major concern for producers. Grazing cornstalks offers producers a great opportunity to utilize a by-product that might otherwise go to waste. Turning cattle out after harvest allows the corn farmer and cattle producer to work together towards a mutually beneficial goal; the farmer’s fields are cleared of leftover plant matter and the producer can feed his cattle inexpensively.

The quality of feedstuffs will vary depending on several factors, including the weather, how long the stalks have been standing, how much grain is still left, etc.

Here are five tips for making the most of your cornstalk grazing program:

  1. Know what you’re feeding. Assess the amount of grain remaining following harvest. Do this prior to turning cattle out. Adjustments to supplementation will depend on how much corn is left in the field.
  2. Support optimum rumen pH. Rumen microbes take time to adjust to the increase in starch in the diet. When microbe populations must shift in composition to process starches, it can take around two weeks for this adjustment to take place. Bloat becomes a concern during this transition, so supporting a proper rumen pH is essential to ensure that there are not major increases in rumen acid (which can lead to microbe die-off and sub-acute ruminal acidosis).
  3. Be prepared to supplement protein. Cornstalks and grain are low in protein, making it necessary to boost the daily protein intake through supplementation. A non-protein nitrogen (NPN) may need to be used to help increase the breakdown and utilization of proteins. It is important to maintain a proper nitrogen-to-starch ratio to help support microbes and stave off bloat.
  4. Vitamin A is key. Vitamin A is most abundantly present in green plant matter – for cattle, lush pastures are the main source of naturally-derived vitamin A. Unfortunately, both cornstalks and grain are markedly low in vitamin A. It will be necessary to supplement vitamin A on a daily basis to cattle grazing on cornstalks.
  5. Provide loose salt and minerals. Cornstalks and grain lack in many essential minerals and the salts needed for the proper functioning of every system in an animal’s body. Phosphorus, for example, is vital for proper digestion, while adequate calcium must be available for lactating cows. Loose salt and mineral supplementation allow for customization depending on regional soil deficiencies and the particular needs of the animals being turned out for cornstalk grazing.
  6. Consider tubs for supplementation. Tubs offer a great all-in-one solution for the supplementation of cattle. Many offer regional formulas to address specific deficiencies unique to the areas they are formulated for. In addition to salt and mineral supplementation, tubs make it possible to fill in the gaps in the nutritional profile of cornstalk grazing without breaking the bank.

Using cornstalk grazing as an economical way to feed cattle is a great way to take advantage of by-product resources. Establishing that fine balance between affordability and optimum conversion may take a little research and work, but the end result can mean more dollars in your pocket come sale time.

Feed and Water: The Best Medicine

By Acidosis and Shipping Fever, Cattle, Cow-Calf, Pre-Conditioning No Comments

In today’s stocker and feeder industry, producers must rely on “high-risk” sale barn calves for inventory. Trailer weaning, commingling, and non-existent health programs make these calves challenging to precondition and put into production. The fact that most of these calves have no immunity and have a rumen that is not mature makes them very susceptible to environmental and airborne pathogens. Exposure to other cattle, dusty sale barns, and hours without feed and water during the sale and transportation to an unfamiliar environment starts the process of “shipping fever.”
Pressure from consumers – both foreign and domestic – for less antibiotic use has increased the focus for alternatives to antibiotics. Nutritionists I veterinarians, and academic researchers are starting to focus more on Sub-Acute Ruminal Acidosis (SARA) – often a result of stress – and the effects it has on appetite, immunity, and cortisol levels in cattle. Stress is unavoidable when cattle are weaned I transported, commingled, and processed and is the leading cause of SARA.

How Stress Affects Ruminal Health

Stress creates a physiological chain reaction that increases acid production in the rumen, resulting in a lower ruminal pH. This imbalance must be corrected for the calf to digest any feedstuffs that are ingested. Prolonged acidity in the rumen compromises the protective mucosal lining, allowing bacteria from the rumen to leak into the bloodstream, causing shipping fever. A compromised rumen also means that the calf’s immune system is being negatively impacted as 80% of the calf’s immune system is contained in and around the rumen and small intestine.
A compromised immune system allows secondary pathogens in the respiratory tract to multiply and migrate to the lungs where irreparable damage occurs. These pathogens are the main cause of death in “high-risk” calves.

The three physiological effects of stress that impact a “high-risk” calf are:

• An increase in acid production and a decrease in pH of the rumen suppresses the appetite and impacts digestion.
• An elevated core temperature causing fever and increasing morbidity.
• An increase in blood cortisol levels suppresses the immune system and appetite.

An increase in cortisol suppresses appetite by affecting the brain’s ability to release hormones that trigger appetite. Elevated cortisol levels also suppress the immune system, making vaccinations ineffective when administered to stressed calves. A climb in the core temperature can prove detrimental as fever greatly increases morbidity and the possibility of mortality.

How CattlActive® Can Help

CattlActive® is an all-natural oral drench that is proven to raise the pH of the rumen 0.9 units in 15 minutes. It is also proven to lower the core temperature by as much as 6° F in 15 minutes. In addition, it has been shown to lower cortisol levels from an elevated 229 nmols to a more beneficial level of 153 nmols.

CattlActive® can also be used in a water source at 1 ml/gallon to sustain these beneficial levels of pH, core temperature, and cortisol. Every time a calf is processed, handled, revaccinated, or treated for sickness it is stressed, increasing the risk of SARA affecting that calf. The ability of CattlActive® to neutralize acid in 15 minutes makes it ideal for “high-risk” calves.
Good quality feed and water are the best medicine for cattle – creating the environment in the rumen to receive feed and water is paramount. This encourages the beneficial microbes to flourish and promote proper digestion. It also increases the calf’s ability to regain shrink, respond to vaccines, and fight off disease. Remember, antibiotics are only 20% of the defense against disease in cattle. Vaccines, good management, and nutrition are the other 80%. Using CattlActive® in your operation will encourage “high-risk” calves to eat and drink, supporting a healthier animal overall.

For a printable copy of this article, including cost analysis of CattlActive®, please click here.

Prebiotics: What They Are and What They Do

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Prebiotics are an important part of the digestive cycle and especially for mammals. Although much research has been conducted on the importance of probiotics, it’s only been in recent years that the role of prebiotics has been closely examined and studied.

Not to be confused with probiotics, prebiotics support the health and continued growth of the beneficial microbes that make up prebiotics.

These findings have led to a major change in the way prebiotics and probiotics are being used in the cattle producer’s operation to help minimize the need for antibiotics while increasing gains.

Definition of Prebiotics

Prebiotics are feed ingredients that are not digestible or only partially digestible. They provide colonies of beneficial bacteria in the gut with “food” so they can continue to flourish. This, in turn, works to maintain a balanced digestive microbiota.

In specific, cattle benefit from the undigestible sugars that are often found in fibrous plant material. Most feedstuffs contain at least a small amount of prebiotic material. Prebiotics can be found naturally at some level in almost any feed.

This includes grass and other forage, grains, and formulated concentrated feeds. Some products on the market even add specialized blends of prebiotics.

How Do Prebiotics Work?

When a cow consumes feed, the rumen works to break it down more and more as it moves sequentially through each stomach chamber. In this way, the feed it is eating has the highest chance of being gleaned of nutrients for the cow’s utilization.

By the time this digesta reaches the intestinal tract nearly all of the nutrient-containing components have been extracted, allowing for the final stages of digestion and absorption into the body. The only exception to this is the undigestible matter that remains unprocessed. Much of this matter serves as a prebiotic.

Once these prebiotics reach the intestinal tract they begin to ferment, where they produce volatile fatty acids such as butyric acid. The beneficial bacteria in the gut thrive on these volatile fatty acids (VFAs), which in turn allows them to grow more robust and increase their numbers.

What Is the Most Common Source of Prebiotics in the Bovine Diet?

In an unenhanced diet (i.e. feedstuffs that have not been seeded with prebiotics), the most plentiful source or prebiotics comes from plant material such as hay or alfalfa. The undigestible fiber and other components in this roughage provide an excellent source of prebiotic material.

This is, in part, why cattle that are on a concentrated feed diet may be more prone to experiencing intestinal microbial imbalances.

To counter this issue with concentrated feeds, many companies are now offering diets using a wide variety of prebiotics. Perhaps the most widely known of these are mannan oligosaccharides (MOS).

MOS are highly beneficial for attracting and carrying harmful pathogens from the gut. They work by drawing in bad bacteria with a sugar known as mannose. These bacteria cannot derive energy from the sugar but do stick to it. They are then carried from the animal’s system without managing to infect it or further populate the gut.

Other prebiotics that have also shown to be valuable in developing a healthy digestive system include fructooligosaccharides and beta glucan.

Why Are Prebiotics Necessary?

The health of the digestive system and gut microbiota (as discussed in the first installment) is dependent upon the balance of microbes inhabiting the intestines.

Every animal has a different microbial makeup that forms their own individual microbiome. Despite this, there is one fact that is the same across the board – there must be a much higher level of beneficial microbes than commensal or pathogenic.

Prebiotics feed the beneficial bacteria that line the gut walls. They are responsible for helping further digest food, increase nutrient absorption and keep the pathogenic microbes at manageable numbers. They also provide a sort of “buffer” that prevents toxins from passing through the intestinal walls and into the bloodstream.

When enough prebiotics are not being introduced into the digestive system, the beneficial microbes don’t have access to the needed “food” that keeps them functioning and multiplying. As they “starve” they begin to die off in increasingly larger numbers.

As this die-off occurs, acid-producing harmful bacteria are able to establish themselves in larger numbers on the gut walls.

Once too much of the beneficial microbe population has been destroyed, it’s difficult to get the balance back where it belongs.

How Can Prebiotics Help?

In animals with a healthy gut microbiota, keeping an adequate level of prebiotics in the diet will help maintain the status quo. However, for those animals that have a compromised digestive system, prebiotics may be the key to giving them an honest chance at becoming healthy.

It has been found that calves that receive adequate prebiotics both pre and post-weaning tend to have greater gains. This is due to increased nutrient absorption.

A popular remedy for calves that are poor doers is to administer lactulose, a synthetic disaccharide. Studies have found that calves that have been given this course of therapy frequently develop strong immune systems and are able to overcome some of the issues associated with premature birth.

Additionally, prebiotics increase the body’s ability to rid itself of waste and toxins by increasing stool size, moisture content and composition. Both constipation and diarrhea can be devastating conditions for the young calf.

In Conclusion

Prebiotics are an absolutely necessary aspect of maintaining a healthy microbiome. The gut’s ability to function optimally depends on two main things – how strong the beneficial microbial population is and whether or not the pH is properly balanced.

Both of these functions depend on the presence of adequate amounts of prebiotics to support the digestive system.







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What is a microbiome?

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What In the World Is A Microbiome?

Part one of a three-part series on the microbiome and the role of the digestive system in the overall health of cattle.

Let’s face it – ruminants are some of the most complexly-designed animals on the planet. Their multi-chambered stomachs must be in sync like clockwork to ensure the animal gets the nutrients it needs.

These inner workings are further complicated by the fact that the resident microbial population must maintain a careful balance in order for proper digestion to take place.

You may have heard the term “microbiome” before. For as important as it is, it very rarely features in discussions surrounding the gut-immune system link.

To understand the roles of the various parts of the digestive system, including its microbial element, it’s helpful to know what the microbiome is and how it functions as a whole.

The skinny of a microbiome

The honed-down definition of a microbiome is a group of different kinds microorganisms that live together, creating a unique miniature ecosystem in a host. Think of it this way: The entire body is a city. Within that city are numerous inhabitants including plants and animals that create the residents.

Within this microbiome, these residents include symbiotic, commensal and pathogenic bacteria, viruses and fungi. In this particular case, the microbiome is the cow’s body.

Now, onto these neighborhoods. In every living organism are multiple “neighborhoods” or communities known as microbiota. Each of these is unique in the types and numbers of different microbes living within that group. Microbiota are present in every part of the body.

For the purposes of this article, the main focus will be on the bacterial microbiome that is found in the cow’s digestive system.

The Good, the Bad, The Lazy: different bacteria of the microbiome

There are three different categories of bacteria that live in the microbiome. These three categories are symbiotic, commensal and pathogenic.

Symbiotic bacteria are those bacteria that work with the body and contribute positively to the animal’s well-being. In true symbiotic fashion, they take what they need from the host, and in return, give the host something it needs.

Commensal bacteria are the freeloaders of the bacterial world. They don’t hurt the host, but certainly don’t provide anything, either.

Then we come to the pathogenic bacteria. These “criminals” of the bacterial world are usually present in the fewest numbers. They are very opportunistic and will take advantage if they find a weakness in the system. This is when they are most likely to cause disease.

The overall health of a microbiome determines how everyone lives together and whether or not the pathogenic bacteria will be able to take hold and cause disease. In healthy animals, they live side-by-side with smaller populations of the “bad” bacteria being kept to a minimum.

Got microbiome?

Literally every multi-celled animal (and even plants) on the planet depend on their microbiomes to keep them healthy and alive. Focusing in even closer, the individual microbiota in a microbiome serves its own purpose, making sure the whole can function properly.

A cow’s body has a multi-layered system of defenses that protect it from disease. This is where the microbiome shines as the hero.

Starting with its hide, this is the first defense barrier. It physically protects against the invasion of pathogens and other foreign substances from entering the body.

Up next are the mucous membranes. They play host to a wide variety of cells and microbes that help prevent disease. They also provide a layer of protection for underlying tissues.

Last, but not least, we have the gut. The gut is the number-one most important element of a healthy microbiome.


Sure, it breaks down food and makes it useable. Between digestive enzymes and acids, the bulk of the feed gets broken down. Then what? This is where the symbiotic bacteria present in the gut get their moment to shine.

They further break down feed into absorbable nutrients and, in the process, create some pretty amazing metabolic by-products that are actually highly beneficial to the cow.

These chemicals support a healthy gut lining. They neutralize excess acid and encourage the growth of more beneficial bacteria. This not only crowds out any extra pathogens but also keeps toxins from crossing the gut barrier and entering into the bloodstream.

Big bonus: they promote stimulation and support of the overall immune system.

How does the ruminal microbiome develop?

A calf’s system is a blank slate when it’s born. When in utero, the calf doesn’t have to contend with bacterial or viral issues – ideally, its mother’s body takes care of all of that.

Once it is born, the creation of its unique microbiome begins.

Exposure to microbes found in the birth canal are the first the calf will encounter. From there, the next introduction is to those found in the environment around it – the air, soil, and plant life it comes into contact with will contribute new microbial elements to the overall development of its microbiome.

A calf’s gut doesn’t have any marked populations of bacteria, fungus, yeast or viruses until it nurses for the first time. The combination of the microbes found in those first feedings of a cow’s colostrum, along with any found on the teats provide the framework for the gut’s development.

Because these first nursings determine a calf’s health for the rest of its life, it’s integral that the mother have a strong and healthy rumen that allows her to produce a high-quality colostrum.

Obviously, the microbial population plays the biggest role in the development of the digestive microbiome. Despite this, additional factors such as genetic makeup and the diet have a significant influence on the ongoing health of the microbiome.

Antibiotics: both friend and foe

Believe it or not, the average cow’s microbiome, and in turn its digestive microbiota, was actually healthier a hundred years ago than it is today.

This is due to the introduction and overuse of antibiotics. While these drugs can literally be the difference between life and death when facing a major bacterial infection, they can also be the worst enemy of the balance of the microbiome.

The reason for this is because antibiotics are unable to determine which microbes are beneficial and which are harmful. They end up killing the majority of the bacteria they encounter, pathogenic or not.

As the balance of bacteria is disturbed, the entire microbiome – not just in the gut – is thrown out of whack. This gives opportunistic microbes such as yeasts and funguses a chance to grow unchecked.

The use of antibiotics is being closely examined now. Careful use and management are helping many producers avoid developing antibiotic-resistant diseases in their herds.

Sustaining a healthy microbiome

Ensuring your herd maintains healthy microbiomes can be a big task but is well worth it. The most important aspect of this is giving your cattle a stress-free environment. This helps reduce the production of various chemical components (including gastric acids and cortisol), thus helping maintain homeostasis.

Secondly, directly supporting the microbiome with a healthy diet that is rich in nutrients and has a high prebiotic content.

The cow’s microbiome is the determining factor in its success or failure. Whether raising breeding stock, a feeder calf or a dairy cow, maintaining the balanced microbiome is pivotal in ensuring that animal thrives during its lifespan.

In the next installments, we will cover the importance of prebiotics and their role in maintaining a well-balanced gut and overall microbiome.

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Understanding Adaptive Immunity

By Acidosis and Shipping Fever, Branding, Cattle, Cow-Calf, Pre-Conditioning No Comments

The Adaptive Immune System:

What It Is and How It Works

The immune system. It’s an abstract concept that, at best, is confusing.

It’s common knowledge that the immune system protects against disease-causing pathogens. For instance, a cut may become contaminated with foreign material such as dirt or debris that contains bacteria.

The immune system then detects a threat, kicks in, and sends an army of different cells to mop up the damage and kill off the invading germs.

This type of immune response is the perfect answer when there is an immediate threat; the body does what it must to take care of the pressing possibility of infection.

In a perfect universe, a basic immune response would eliminate any threat. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

So, what about when the body is exposed to specific pathogens time and time again? This is where the adaptive immune system gets its chance to take the wheel, or in some cases, work alongside the innate immune system.

A Closer Look at Adaptive Immunity

Every creature on the planet must carry some sort of immunity that allows it to fight off disease that can be caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi. From insects to elephants, they must have a strong immune system in order to thrive.

Babies of all species are born with a small amount of immunity (innate immunity) and receive a major boost from the colostrum they get from their mothers in the first days of life.

This immunity allows them to contend with minor infections and helps them to resist common, everyday pathogens. What they are lacking is the more specific responses of adaptive immunity. This is where time, exposure and vaccinations come in.

Each time the body is exposed to a new pathogen, the adaptive immune system “remembers” it and develops specific antibodies to destroy that disease. For instance, childhood chickenpox is only contracted once (in most cases).

Once the body has recovered from a disease, it then recognizes and ideally develops specific antibodies to prevent infection by that disease from ever occurring again. The next time exposure occurs, the adaptive immune system will recognize the virus and be lying in wait to kill it off before it can cause infection again.

Vaccinations work from this principle. A weakened, modified or killed version of a disease is introduced into the body. It elicits a response from the immune system to take care of the invading pathogen.

Because it is not a full-blown version, it does not cause clinical illness. It does, however, pack enough of a punch to make the body recognize it and build antibodies to protect against future infection from the pathogen.

Unfortunately, the body doesn’t just come by strong adaptive immunity. There are a few factors that help determine whether an individual’s immune system will be able to properly develop antibodies. The most important of these factors is digestive integrity.

While it may sound odd, most of the immune system develops in and is dependent on a strong digestive system.

Leaky gut syndrome and acidosis can wear down the body’s ability to create effective defenses. This, in turn, leads to an inability to develop strong, disease-specific antibodies, opening the animal up to the possibility of serious disease.

What Does This Have To Do With Cattle?

In the case of cattle, a focused protocol that encourages the growth and support of beneficial gut flora is key. Maintaining a thriving colony of beneficial microbes relies heavily on a balanced pH.

Although any species can experience acidosis, cattle are arguably one of the most impacted by this condition.

By keeping acidosis from developing, a cow has a much greater chance of being healthy and maintaining a strong adaptive immune system.

Want to learn more about how you can help your cattle thrive? Check out what CattlActive can do for you!

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Securing Herd Health for Vaccination Efficacy

By Acidosis and Shipping Fever, Branding, Cattle, Cow-Calf, Pre-Conditioning No Comments

Stress on cattle is inescapable. Just as with humans, daily occurrences can create stress reactions. In cattle, the long-term effects can have detrimental effects on herd health, including reduced milk production and quality; poor weight gain and vitality; reduced immunity to both common and less common pathogens; lower-grade meat; and, ultimately, lower bottom lines.

In a Catch 22-like scenario, the healthiest and strongest cattle are those that have high functioning immune systems. In order to support that high level of functionality, they most benefit from a well-planned vaccination program. Thus, in order for the vaccination program to work, herds must be in the best possible health prior to receiving vaccinations. This is where proper herd management comes into play.

The most effective way to ensure that a herd is primed and ready for vaccinations is to address their rumen health. As mentioned above, rumen pH is perhaps the most important factor in maintaining a viable and highly functioning rumen. Key points for maintaining a healthy rumen include:

  • Avoiding stressful situations for the cattle that will consequently increase cortisol release.
  • Feeding a balanced diet that promotes beneficial microbial growth within the rumen.
  • Maintaining a proper pH balance within the digestive system.
  • Encouraging adequate hydration.
  • Reducing the use of antibiotics when possible.

The bovine digestive system and immune system are indivisible. When they are both working at their optimum levels, they ensure disease resistance and stress resilience. Through careful behavioral and dietary management, every herd has the potential for top production and healthy profit margins.

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Stress and Cortisol Can Undermine Your Herd Vaccination Programs

By Acidosis and Shipping Fever, Branding, Cattle, Cow-Calf, Pre-Conditioning No Comments

Over the past several weeks it has been mentioned that high levels of cortisol can wreak havoc on a cow’s immune system. Just as in people, cortisol can set into motion all sorts of systemic issues that can be hard to reverse. Careful management practices can go a long way toward helping your cattle avoid stressful situations and in turn have stronger immune systems.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is the main hormone released during stressful events. When there are high levels of cortisol in the system, immunity, in general, can be compromised. It has been widely noted that stress is associated with higher fail rates compared to any other factor (aside from inappropriate storage or incorrect use/administration) when considering the numbers for vaccination program failures. Dr. Rob Callan states in his paper titled “The Limitations of Vaccines“: “Many management factors can limit the effectiveness of vaccination including nutrition, environmental conditions, exposure to disease, and vaccination administration. Protein, energy, minerals, and vitamins are all required to develop and maintain a strong immune system. Specific vitamins and minerals associated with optimal immune function include vitamin A, vitamin E, selenium, copper, and zinc. Harsh or stressful environmental conditions can have significant detrimental effects on immune function. In addition, crowding and poor sanitation increase the exposure to infectious agents which can overcome even high levels of immunity. These factors contribute to the increased disease rates associated with climate changes, weaning, herd expansion, shipping or other changes in animal management.”

How Does This Affect Vaccine Efficacy?

Vaccines work by taking a pathogen and weakening, altering or killing it to trigger an immune response in the body. By imitating the disease and infection process (typically asymptomatically in healthy individuals), the body is fooled into believing that an infection is present. The immune system then produces antibodies and T-lymphocytes that attack and create defenses against the isolated pathogen. Because the immune system has a sort of innate “memory,” it stores the primed T-lymphocytes for the next time the body encounters the disease.

A compromised or suppressed immune system will not be able to adequately produce immunity-building cells, resulting in a weak or nonexistent defense. Cortisol, the main stress hormone, works by suppressing the immune system against perceived threats. Obviously, as this occurs, it will be difficult if not impossible for a cow’s body to develop its immunity to the proper levels to prevent infection in the face of an outbreak. The only real way to ensure a vaccine program’s efficacy is to administer vaccinations at the right time and to the most healthy animals possible.

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Prudent Use of Antibiotics for Vaccine Efficacy

By Acidosis and Shipping Fever, Cattle, Pre-Conditioning No Comments

As it has been evidenced in humans, antibiotic use can negatively impact the delicate microbial balance present in the gut. The same is true for cattle. Use of antibiotics can kill off colonies of beneficial bacteria in the rumen, making rumination less complete and more difficult. There is also the risk of developing antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains within a herd due to overuse. This can, in turn, impact a vaccine’s ability to properly immunize your cattle against disease. Your herd veterinarian can help guide you in prudent use of antibiotics to help not only preserve the gut flora and fauna but also work towards preventing the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria amongst your herd.

Dietary Considerations

The cow’s rumen is a complex system of checks and balances to ensure that every bite of feed is utilized to the fullest extent possible. Cattle do best on a grass-only diet, but this is obviously not optimal for finishing cattle or keeping up with the nutritional demands of milk production in dairy cattle.

Cattle that receive large amounts of grain-based feeds have a particular set of challenges to overcome in their digestive process. Grass and forage contain large amounts of fiber, necessitating numerous cycles of regurgitation-chewing-swallowing before the process is complete. The low-carbohydrate makeup and slow breakdown of plant cell wall structures keep the acid production in check, and thus the pH is fairly neutral at around 6.0.

High-concentrate feeds such as grain, however, do not require nearly the same level of chewing and ruminating to be digested. This, in turn, shortens the length of time the feed is mixed with saliva, which contains enzymes such as salivary lipase and amylase, not to mention minerals such as potassium, bicarbonate, phosphate and urea. When there is less ruminating (also known as cud-chewing), the buffering effects in the rumen environment are reduced. The rapid production of VFAs (volatile fatty acids) lowers the pH to closer to 5.5, creating a more acidic environment that does not support the forage-utilizing microbes, leading to a die-off.

With a lower pH compounded by an increased lactic acid and VFA concentration, the rumen can fail to provide adequate buffering and efficiently absorb the VFAs. When this happens, metabolic acidosis poses a threat, in addition to damage to the rumen lining. These ulcerations can cause discomfort, inappetence and, thus, stress and cortisol release. Without adequate breakdown of feed compounded by a compromised barrier, larger, undigested feed particles can cross through tissues and membranes, creating the perfect storm — an inflammatory response that then triggers yet more cortisol being released into the bloodstream.

Both adult cattle and calves transitioning from a pasture or range setting to a confined environment can have a difficult time making the change. The differences in environment, in addition to being separated from herd mates and introduced to strange animals, causes a great deal of stress, regardless of how it is carried out.

Once in this new setting, they are also started on high-concentrate feeds that they have likely never encountered before. The change from a forage diet to a concentrated diet can increase physical stress and create a pH imbalance in the rumen. Poor digestion contributes to low weight gain or actual weight loss. For calves and adult cattle that have been out with the herd, this poses an even more difficult set of challenges. Not only do they have to adapt to separation from their group, but they also must become familiar with water sources that they may have never encountered, such as troughs (many range cattle drink only from streams or ponds). Dehydration is a major factor in acidosis and rumen damage.

At this juncture, it’s most important to support the digestive processes (and thus the immune system) to help animals adapt. Maintaining a healthy pH balance is the most efficient and cost-effective way of ensuring that animals being introduced to new feed and water sources thrive. A healthy, well-functioning rumen ensures that at the time of vaccination, the immune system is primed to respond properly for building immunity.

While there are many other stressors cattle may encounter, the aforementioned four factors are the most widely reported as having negative effects on cattle health and vitality.

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