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Prebiotics: What They Are and What They Do

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

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.

SOURCES:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4462921/

http://ijlr.org/issue/prebiotics-new-feed-supplement-dairy-calf/

http://www.credenceresearch.com/press/global-prebiotics-in-animal-feed-market

https://www.progressivedairy.com/topics/feed-nutrition/youve-heard-about-probiotics-for-cows-but-what-about-prebiotics

http://feedlotmagazine.com/benefits-of-using-probiotics-prebiotics-in-cattle-feed/

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What is a microbiome?

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

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.

How?

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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Heat Stress and Your Cattle

By Cattle, Cow-Calf, Pre-Conditioning No Comments

Heat stress is an age-old problem and can have a detrimental impact on your herd. Your cattle may be particularly sensitive to high dew points and extreme temperatures, resulting in heat stress. This only worsens if there is no significant cooling period after the sun goes down and throughout the night. Essentially, this will guarantee that they won’t have any opportunity to cool down, putting a great deal of strain on their bodies and resulting in heat stress.

What to Watch For

Heat stress isn’t difficult to spot — it’s very obvious when an animal is in distress. They will display symptoms such as:

Early stage heat stress:

  • increased respiratory rate
  • open-mouth breathing
  • slobbering

Should the heat stress advance, cattle are likely to:

  • lose coordination
  • tremble
  • stagger

If a cow goes down as a result of heat stress, the chances of them getting back up and being able to recover are very, very low.

How to Avoid Heat Stress in Your Herd

To help your herd transition through these relentlessly warm days and nights, we’ve provided a short (but thorough) list of things you can do to safeguard your cattle. If your cattle are showing signs of heat stress, it’s integral that you provide immediate intervention. If possible, help the process in the evening after the sun has set to help them maintain a fairly natural heat dissipation pattern.

Keep water fresh and provide additional water sources. If your cattle are on pasture, give them access to more water. For example, if there is only one tank in each pasture, add one or two more spaced out a bit. Stay on top of the water — make sure it is clean, free of foreign material and top it up regularly.

Keep handling to a minimum, or avoid it altogether, if possible. This includes moving, processing or transporting your cattle. If it’s absolutely necessary, work during the early morning hours when the temperatures will be at their lowest for the day. Always try to practice low-stress handling techniques, but especially during inclement weather, such as extreme heat.

Provide adequate shade. This is sometimes easier said than done, but your herd’s well-being depends on being able to seek relief from the sun’s burning rays. Dark-colored, young and old cattle have a particularly difficult time handling the direct sun. The easiest ways to provide shade are to move your cattle to pastures that provide natural tree cover or even holding pens that offer open buildings.

Create adequate air flow in enclosed barns. If you keep your animals in a setting such as a dairy operation or feed beef cattle indoors, be sure that there is adequate ventilation. If possible, open up the sides of the barn or use fans to keep the air moving through the structures. If possible, move any cattle that don’t need to be indoors to outside pens with shade. Overcrowding can push the temperatures up even more. In humid areas, refrain from using sprinklers, as this can raise humidity levels, but do little to help cool the cattle themselves.

Keep an eye out for unusual behavior. As with any animal, stress combined with heat can be a recipe for disaster. If your herd becomes stressed for some reason, watch carefully for unusual behavioral patterns (moving around too much, or not enough; aggression; lethargy, etc.).

Always be prepared. The worst thing you can do is enter into the hot summer season unprepared. For instance, have a contingency plan should your well or water source become unavailable. Be sure you have the ability to obtain enough water to keep your herd adequately hydrated. Should power go out in your fan-cooled buildings, make sure you have adequate outdoor space you can transfer your cattle into or that you have functioning backup generators to power the cooling system.

Keeping an eye on resources such as heat index maps can help ensure that you’re a step ahead of the weather. Keeping your cattle cool and healthy may take some extra effort but in the end will be well worth the effort.

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Mineral Supplementation: A Summer Essential

By Cattle, Cow-Calf, Pre-Conditioning No Comments
It’s hot. Your cattle sweat. They need to consume more water. Because of this, they also need to be receiving adequate mineral supplementation to maintain proper balances to thrive. Minerals provide a wide array of necessary nutrients, from electrolytes to maintain adequate hydration and cardiovascular function to calcium for strong bones. It may be hard to keep up with the demands of checking and filling feeders or replacing blocks regularly, but it’s in your best interest to ensure your cattle have 24/7 access to adequate mineral supplementation.

Choosing the Right Supplements

It can be daunting to figure out which minerals your cattle need and which they don’t. It all comes down to the feed they’re consuming, the presence of naturally occurring minerals in the water source, etc.

  • Forage. Forage contains many different minerals your cattle may need. Depending on what the forage is, what type of soil it’s grown in and so on, it can be determined what gaps you need to fill. Testing is available on hay or pasture to determine what the nutrient content (including minerals) is present in your feed. Soil testing may also provide you with valuable information on what your land is capable of providing.
  • Concentrated feed. Concentrated feeds are often fortified with vitamins and minerals. The labeling on these feeds should include the different mineral contents. Depending on how much concentrated feed you’re offering, you may need to supplement or scale back mineral supplementation.
  • Water. Some areas produce water that is naturally rich in certain minerals. If your cattle drink consistently from the same well, creek or municipal water source it would be prudent to have the water tested for mineral content. As an aside, it’s important to note that water with strange odors or objectionable flavors (such as water with a high sulfur content) may discourage adequate water intake. Water additives can help increase palatability and thus, consumption.

Mineral Supplementation

Once you’ve determined which gaps you need to fill in your cattle’s mineral profile you can begin supplementing. In many cases standard mineral blocks are adequate. This is a convenient way to supplement cattle on range or pastureland that are eating a diet of grass and forage. If you’re keeping cattle in this setting, place the blocks in areas where they spend a lot of time. These can include areas near water sources, shady areas, loafing sheds, etc. This allows them maximum opportunity to consume optimum quantities. A common rule of thumb for free-access is to have one mineral station for every 30 head. If you are feeding a concentrated diet, you can use a feed additive with the right mineral balance to meet your cattle’s needs. Some companies will create customized mineral supplements to meet the specific needs of your cattle and their environment.

Observing Mineral Consumption

It’s important to keep an eye on how well your cattle are consuming their mineral supplements. Replace them as needed to ensure that there is always a constant supply. It can become tricky if your veterinarian has recommended medications to include in a mineral combination. This will make it even more important to observe consumption to ensure that your cattle are receiving not only adequate minerals but also the proper amounts of medication. If those medications include antibiotics, you’ll need to establish a “Veterinary Feed Directive” (also known as a VFD). Your herd veterinarian can work with you on determining what is right for your herd’s management.

Proper mineral supplementation can mean the difference between your cattle thriving or merely surviving. Taking the time now to ensure your animals are receiving what they need will eventually find its way to a healthy bottom line.
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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

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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The Immune Stress of Transportation and Poor Husbandry

By Acidosis and Shipping Fever, Branding, Cattle, Cow-Calf, Pre-Conditioning 6 Comments

It is likely that the most stressful event a cow will face in its lifetime is transportation. There are many factors that play into the toll shipping has on cattle. First, the trauma caused by loading can be fairly significant. If rough handling or poor conditions inside and outside of the trailer exist, this heightens that stress even more.

The inner environment of the trailer itself can also have a major impact on the herd’s well-being. Crowded compartments and unfamiliar animals contribute drastically to raising stress levels in cattle. Temperatures within transports can soar to almost unbearable levels during the summer and plummet to below freezing in the colder months.

Once on the road, an animal can remain in transport for more than 24 hours in some instances. During this time, access to water and adequate feed is limited. Fat cattle tend to fair the best, but they can still experience a fairly large amount of shrink. After 30 hours, the body cannot shed more water, so the weight being lost is tissue itself. Calves, cull cattle, and feeders tend to fare the worst in this scenario, consistently showing the largest amount of shrink. It’s important to ensure that cattle are well-prepared for a long trek prior to transport to ensure the least amount of stress and physical damage as they are conveyed to their destination.

 Husbandry

There is a direct correlation between poor husbandry and increased stress levels in both dairy and beef cattle. Every vaccination available can be administered, but with the wrong living conditions and lack of attention to care, there will be no marked benefit. This is due to the overwhelming stress put on the immune system while it attempts to cope with the influx of harmful microorganisms present in the environment.

In the case of dairy cattle, unsanitary living conditions can lead to mastitis, internal systemic infections, skin infections and hoof conditions, severely limiting their production potential. Most of these conditions require antibiotic intervention, during the course of which the cow’s milk cannot be included in the production stream. Mastitis treatment can be particularly painful for the cow, increasing stress levels regardless of how frequently she is handled.

Sub-par living conditions can wreak havoc on not only an animal’s physical well-being but also that of their psychological health. Waterborne and airborne diseases are common in poorly kept barns and stockyards. Dim lighting and cramped quarters lead to fighting, injuries, and distress. They’re also the perfect breeding ground for highly contagious diseases such as Bovine Respiratory Disease Complex (BRDC), Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD), scours, foot rot, conjunctivitis, ringworm and a large number of other aggressive pathogens. Additionally, bedding or footing saturated with water, feces or urine have the potential to create serious problems in the dermis and respiratory systems from exposure to fungus, bacteria, aerosolized fecal matter, and ammonia. Young calves are especially susceptible to poor air quality and easily develop calf pneumonia.

Sanitary conditions and adequate room, along with proper ventilation, is vital for maintaining health and reducing stress levels in cattle. Clean water and feed that is free of mold allow the animal’s body to better derive and utilize nutrients; supplements that support the immune system and fill in nutritional gaps allow the rumen to properly function.

Check back in on  Friday for more on the topic of vaccines and the role the existing immune systems plays in their efficacy. Missed the last installment? Check it out here

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

There are several situations that can contribute to the overall stress level (and subsequent hormone release) in both individual cattle and the whole herd. While it’s not possible to completely avoid these situations, measures can be taken to prevent excessive exposure. Not only does stress have an effect on immunity and the outcome of finished cattle, but it can also have a negative impact on the quality of meat or, in the case of dairy cattle, the milk itself. The factors outlined below have been found to be the most detrimental to the well-being of cattle, both physically and psychologically. In this segment the first major factor — handling — is covered; next week the remaining stressors and situations will be addressed.

Handling Techniques

Over the last few decades, the cattle industry has seen major shifts in the handling and processing of livestock. Starting in the 1970s with the findings of Dr. Temple Grandin, the face of cattle management and “best practices” has changed significantly. It was realized that with certain equipment modifications and handling techniques, the stress (and subsequent loss rate) of livestock slated for slaughter could be reduced, therefore increasing production. The same methodology can be applied in the handling and care of dairy cattle as well. Frequent, gentle handling can create trust between cow and handler. Relaxed and non-fearful milk cows produce more milk of higher quality than their stressed counterparts.

The handling of beef cattle can be a virtually stress-free event for both the animals and the handlers. According to Principles for Low Stress Cattle Handling, “An animal’s previous experiences will affect its stress reaction to handling. Cattle have long memories. Animals which have been handled roughly will be more stresses (sic) and difficult to handle in the future. Animals which are handled gently and have become accustomed to handling procedures will have very little stress when handled. The basic principle is to prevent cattle from becoming excited. Cattle can become excited in just a few seconds, but it takes 20 to 30 minutes for the heart rate to return to normal in severely agitated cattle.” This indicates that a cow may remain in a nearly constant state of stress-induced arousal with repeatedly rough or unfamiliar handling over a prolonged period of time, increasing the release of cortisol into the system. More and more ranchers are rejecting the “ram and jam” method of cattle handling, trading it in for less aggressive methods.

Branding, vaccinations, and castrations can be arduous for both cattle and handlers. Hot branding is considered to be the most stressful means of animal identification, due to the pain levels that have been measured during the procedure. The American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA) has outlined practices for less painful (and subsequently stressful) identification, including freeze-branding, tagging, and ear-notching.

Vaccinating cattle is absolutely essential to ensuring herd health and immunity. When administering multiple vaccines to a cow, it causes less pain to the animal when needles are changed after each injection, as they dull exponentially upon each puncture. Subcutaneous injection is always preferable, as it tends to be less painful than intramuscular injections and as such, should be used whenever feasible. Further, the spread of disease from animal to animal is less likely with frequent needle changes.

Further studies have shown that abrupt separation and forced weaning between cows and their calves can cause heightened stress responses, both physiologically and psychologically. It can prove especially detrimental in range calves that have not learned to be in confined areas or around humans. Handling calves gently from birth (or first contact) can markedly increase their trust and subsequently diminish stress responses to routine handling and moving.

Another marked stressor for cattle is overly aggressive cattle dogs. It’s of the utmost importance to ensure that any dog that is working cattle does so in a calm, methodical manner. Cattle are prey animals, making it incredibly frightening and stressful to be faced with a predator that, by all appearances, is in attack mode. Exposing both calves and mature cattle to adequately trained dogs regularly helps dispel their perceptions of danger from herding dogs.

Check back in on Tuesday for the next part of this multi-part series where I’ll outline additional stress factors that can have a negative impact on vaccinations and their efficacy. Missed the first installment? Check it out here

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Stress and Cortisol Can Undermine Your Herd Vaccination Programs

Herd Handling Techniques and Their Effects on the Immune System

Prebiotics: What They Are and What They Do

Prudent Use of Antibiotics for Vaccine Efficacy

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