The Moos Room™

Dr. Joe walks through the disease process of clostridial abomasitis (abomasal bloats) and clostridial enteritis (clostridial diarrhea), treatment, and, most importantly, prevention. Management, management, management.

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What is The Moos Room™?

Hosted by members of the University of Minnesota Extension Beef and Dairy Teams, The Moos Room discusses relevant topics to help beef and dairy producers be more successful. The information is evidence-based and presented as an informal conversation between the hosts and guests.

Dr. Joe: Welcome to The Moos Room, everybody. This week it's just me. Just Dr. Joe this week. Schedules are getting tough to organize between Bradley going to Florida, taking a well-deserved break, Emily traveling everywhere around the state, and then myself traveling as well. You're just stuck with me this week. That's how it's going to have to be. This week we're addressing a topic that came up when I was giving a presentation about whether or not we should take away milk when a calf is scouring or sick in any way.
The answer is no. You should never take away milk because that calf needs the calories to fight off that infection. We can't get behind on that. It's the same thing in human infants. Even when they're sick, we never take away calories. We never stop feeding an infant. It is the same thing for calves. I don't care why they're sick, don't care what the reason is. We never stop feeding them.
The response I get to this is always the same. It's well, when I stop feeding them, they stop scouring. Well, yes, you clear the pipes, everything's out, there's nothing to scour. Of course, they'd stop scouring, but just taking away the calories and the feed didn't solve the problem. It didn't make them better. They still have the underlying issue. They just have nothing left to scour in the way of food, which they need because they need the calories to fight off the infection.
Obviously, I get a little heated about this topic, and I'm coming off probably a little aggressive when it comes to this topic, but it's very, very important. Now, in the context of this episode, the reason this came up is because I had a conversation with a producer about clostridial disease in calves.
Clostridial abomasitis or clostridial enteritis, basically, abomasal bloats or clostridial diarrhea in calves. Basically, the comment was we need to stop feeding them because we have an overgrowth of clostridial bacteria causing the issue. If we feed them more milk, all we're doing is feeding those clostridial bugs and having them overgrow more. That is the wrong idea, and I see where it's going because the milk in a lot of cases is the source of the issue to begin with. In a lot of minds, it might make sense to take it away, but those calories are so important.
We can't take that milk away.
What we need to do is fix the problem with the milk so that we don't cause any more issues, and in the meantime, we can treat the problem and then continue to feed milk. Let's get into a little background on this just so we're all on the same page and then we'll come back and review this comment and this question about whether or not we should continue to feed milk to an animal that has any sort of disease, which I'm saying you should, but specifically, we'll talk about clostridial abomasitis and enteritis.
Let's get into the background on this. We're talking about calves of a particular age, basically calves that are still on milk. That's where we're concerned about this. This is where we have the most problems with abamosal bloats, and then clostridial diarrhea or enteritis. The clostridium that we're concerned about in this case is Clostridium perfringens. There's all sorts of different types of Clostridium perfringens. We don't really need to get into it because it honestly doesn't matter for the prevention, the treatment, vaccination. It really doesn't matter what the type is. It doesn't change what we do.
If you're curious, the types are A, B, C, D, and E. Okay? Those are the ones we're worried about. Again, we're not going to get into it because it doesn't really matter. It doesn't change anything for what we do when it comes to vaccination, treatment, or prevention.
Where is this bug coming from? Why do we have a problem with it? Well, it's always there. That's the answer. Clostridium are just there in the gut. They're always there. We're not getting these bugs from somewhere. The issue is that we're supplying something that changes the environment that allows them to overgrow. When they get into numbers that are too high and they produce all of these toxins, then we have our issue. The other place you might have heard of Clostridium perfringens being an issue is in hemorrhagic bowel syndrome. That's something that we talk about usually with older cattle. The disease process isn't quite understood, but it tends to be similar, right? We've changed the environment in some way that allows Clostridium perfringens to overgrow, release toxins in a significant amount, because there's just more of the bacteria there, and then we have an issue.
What do these calves look like when you have them on your farm? Well, the abomasal bloat is the easiest to diagnose and to see. It happens fast, really fast. These calves get bloated sometimes on both sides because the abomasum gets big enough. They're incredibly uncomfortable, painful. They're up, they're down. They look big and bloated. They refuse to drink and sometimes they even look like they're having trouble breathing because that abomasum is so big that it's pushing on the diaphragm and it's not allowing them to breathe correctly.
That's an emergency, absolute emergency to try to make sure that we can save that calf. It does happen quickly. On necropsy, incredibly easy to identify. You get a big bloated abomasum that is usually discolored purple on the inside. It might even be black because of some necrosis going on from the toxins from those clostridial organisms. When we're talking about clostridial enteritis, so diarrhea, and farther down the track, inflammation in the small intestine, pretty easy to identify on necropsy as well. Sometimes you get bloody contents or diarrhea-looking contents in the small intestine.
The small intestine itself is discolored and necrotic in a lot of cases as well. Without even sending samples in, we can usually identify that this is a clostridial issue on farm in a calf that we just open up. Now, enteritis calves or clostridial enteritis calves don't look as emergent as an abomasal bloat. They look awful, don't get me wrong. They still look terrible because they're uncomfortable, they are toxic. It's still a serious issue. It's just not quite as much of an emergency as an abomasal bloat. The calves can still go quickly, they can still die very quickly, but they usually look incredibly depressed, some kind of diarrhea, sometimes it's even bloody, refuse to drink, seem painful. All of those same things, they just don't get bloated as much because they don't have the abomasal bloat going on.
Now, the biggest issue with both of these disease processes is that it happens so fast that our case mortality is still quite high. We're thinking about a coin flip. Basically, a 50-50 shot for this calf on whether or not they're going to make it. It becomes incredibly important that we prevent the disease process from happening to begin with rather than focusing on treatment. Now, I am going to talk about treatment because I just told you it's an emergency and you have to act fast.
Sometimes you can't wait for the veterinarian to get there, and there's some things you can do. In really severe cases, the veterinarian might actually relieve the pressure in the abomasum by taking gas or fluid out of the abomasum, but usually, that's something that we reserve for a veterinarian because it is a procedure where we're going to put a needle through the body wall into the abomasum and take fluid and gas off that way.
What can you do? You got an abomasal bloat, that calf looks terrible. You know you don't have much time because they're going to get much worse very quickly. There's really two things that Clostridium organisms hate. They hate oxygen and they hate penicillin. Right away those are your two go-to treatments. Oxygen in the form of water and penicillin. Both of those treatments going orally. We're giving them water and we're giving penicillin in an attempt to kill the Clostridium organisms that are producing the gas and allow that animal to recover.
Now, we can't put too much into the abomasum because it's already full. We don't want to add to that problem. When we're doing this, we're talking about pretty small volumes of water combined with penicillin and getting those into the animal with a tube, an esophageal tube, delivering it right to the source of where it needs to go.
That's something you should work with your veterinarian on to develop a treatment protocol so you know exactly how much water, exactly how much penicillin you're putting into that calf.
Now, one of the other things I see quite often and I get questions on is why can't I just tube that animal and get the gas off like I would a bloat in, let's say, a feedlot steer? Well, the issue is our problem is in the abomasum. When we have big bloats in feedlot cattle or with cows, our bloat is in the rumen. With the calves, everything gets diverted, larger particles, everything else gets diverted away from the abomasum into the rumen. Whereas the esophageal groove allows for milk and fluids to go to the abomasum.
If you put a tube and you're trying to get to the abomasum, you're not going to make it. You're always going to get to the rumen rather than the abomasum. That's why tubing an animal to relieve the gas isn't going to work. We need to put water and penicillin in there to relieve that bloat. Now, oftentimes this happens so fast, both the abomasum bloats and the clostridial enteritis that these calves might not even run a fever because they haven't developed anything systemic or they haven't become septic yet if you catch it early.
A temperature isn't going to help you a ton, except for when we are talking about supplemental antibiotics in this case, other than the penicillin that we need to give systemically or with an injection. Okay, that's as far as I'm going to go down the treatment road. That's something you need to work with your veterinarian on to develop protocols, have the decision tree set up so you know what to give and when. I'm going to leave it there for treatment.
The bigger topic now, let's get to that. Prevention. How do we stop these cases from happening to begin with? Well, there's some very specific things that are associated with these problems, and it all comes down to consistency. That's all we're looking at. Just like I've told a lot of you, if you've heard me talk before, feeding calves should be the most boring job in the entire world if you're doing it right because you should do everything exactly the same at the exact same time every single day. It's monotonous, it's boring, and if it's that way for you, you are doing it right.
The biggest issue with clostridium that I see when we have bloats when we have clostridial enteritis, is feeding temperature. For whatever reason, that's the one that's most associated with this when I've seen it in the field. It's what is the temperature of milk going into those calves and is it consistent? The temperature of the milk going into these calves should be body temperature between 101 and 103. That's what we want going into the calves.
One of the biggest things I see is not accounting for handling time or mixing or anything like that that will drop the temperature of the milk, because let's say you have 103 degrees Fahrenheit water sitting there in the bottle.
Then you add a scoop of powder or however many scoops of powder to it that you need. You shake it up or you mix it however you're mixing. It's no longer 103 degrees, definitely not. We need to account for handling time and mixing and all these things that would cause that temperature to drop.
A lot of times that's done by having everything ready to go mixed, ready to be fed when you walk out the door to try to get it to the calf at a little higher temperature, 104 or 105, so that by the time it gets to the calf and they start drinking it, it's the correct temperature for them going into their body.
Then the next most common thing I see is issues with consistency when we're mixing. Really what I mean by that is total solids. When we're talking total solids and we look at whole milk, whole milk is usually between 12% and 14% total solids. Now, total solids, what affects that? Protein, fat, carbohydrates, all of those things account for total solids. When we're mixing, we can affect total solids by mixing things more concentrated or less concentrated. If we mix things very, very concentrated, our total solids will go up and we don't really want to get too high above 15%.
15% seems to be the cutoff where we really get into trouble if we get too high. Now, in the ideal world, it'd be really nice to stay within that biologic norm of whole milk, which is between 12% and 14%. That's where I'd love to live. We push things a little bit, trying to get things into the calves' calories to make them grow faster and 15% is the absolute hard cutoff for me. We could probably have a pretty solid debate on that and we can talk about whether we can get higher as long as we're consistent and all of that. It may or may not be true, but when we're talking general rules of where I want to live, I want to live in that 12% to 15% total solids range.
On top of that, it is very important that we're consistent from a day-to-day basis. We don't want to have 12% one day and 15% the next day and then back to 12. We want to pick a number in the range and stay there. That is one of the most important things when we're talking about clostridial disease. If we fluctuate up and down, we're messing with the microbiome in that abomasum in the gut itself, and we're causing issues and disruptions to the ratios which is associated with more clostridial disease.
How does total solids get so high? Well, for a long time, we've talked about needing to feed more in the winter. On face value, it seems easy if you just go about it like, "Well, they need more. The powder is where the energy is. I'll just double up the powder in the same amount of liquid and boom, I fed my calves more." That's where we get issues with total solids being too high, or if we're adding supplemental packs, or if someone's adding electrolytes to their milk. That's where we see issues where total solids can get just too high.
Now, total solids are also related to osmolarity. They're correlated. They're not exactly the same thing, but in general, as total solids increase, osmolarity increases as well. It depends on what's in the total solids, how much our osmolarity goes up. That's something that you would need to work with your nutritionist on to figure that out and make sure your osmolarity is okay. In general, when our osmolarity gets too high, that's a bad thing because we then have osmotic pressure in the gut and we're pulling water out of the animal into the gut. We're basically dehydrating our animal and kicking everything out the back before it has time to be absorbed properly. We've created diarrhea basically.
All right, last thing I'll say on total solids and then we'll move on. Another thing that's very important is getting a good quality milk replacer that stays in solution. Some milk replacers have a tendency to drop out of solution, and that can definitely be an issue, especially when you're feeding in batches. If you're not mixing that batch all the time, that milk replacer will drop out. Now we have a difference in total solids in that batch. The top of that batch might have really low total solids, and the bottom of that batch might have really high total solids.
Some calves are getting the appropriate or too low sometimes. Some calves are getting just right and some calves are getting way too much for total solids. Just one more thing to think about. We got to make sure that that milk replacer stays in solution.
Okay, we talked about temperature and consistency in mixing. Now we got to talk about consistency in timing. Timing's huge. Whenever we talk about feeding cattle, it doesn't matter what age, timing is key. Same time every day, always. Now, the mechanism for this in an adult animal is very clear. We're causing acidosis by rushing the bunk. In calves, it's a little less clear. What we know is that inconsistency in timing is associated with more clostridial disease. How that actually happens when it comes to why if I feed an hour later than normal would I have more clostridial disease? Not quite understood.
I can certainly make a story on the beef side of things when we're talking about, okay, if you disrupt the normal flow of everything and that calf doesn't eat for a certain amount of time, that udder is more full, they're more hungry and they eat a really large meal or larger than they normally would. Then we could have some issues with basically overeating, too much delivery of carbohydrates to the gut that allows these clostridium organisms to overgrow. I can make that story up.
On the dairy side of things, how could timing, especially, if we're feeding the exact same amount matter that much. I think it comes down to a couple of different things. Anytime we change anything, and we're learning this more and more and more, we change anything, we get off schedule for any reason, the microbiome changes. We've already discussed, anytime the microbiome changes, the ratios of which bugs are present changes. We have the opportunity for an opportunistic bacteria like Clostridium to overgrow. That's one reason.
The other reason in my mind is that usually when timing's off for some reason, whether it be early or late, there's a reason something went wrong. Like I said, everything should be boring and monotonous and the same every day. If something's different on the timing side of things, something probably happened different on the prep side of things as well. That's not always the case. My thought is if timing's off by a lot, something went wrong, now we're rushing to catch up or we're changing a bunch of other things, or we got new personnel and that's why the timing's different. Something else is also different when it comes to temperature or mixing consistency. Timing, I think might just be piggybacking off of those other two things in a lot of cases.
All right, so to get back to this question that we originally started with, basically the question is, should I pull milk away from animals experiencing a clostridial disease? Clostridial abomasitis or clostridial enteritis. The answer is no. You need to continue to feed that animal so they have the calories to fight off that disease process. In the meantime, we need to treat that animal to relieve the pressure of the bloat or try to fix the clostridial enteritis that we have going on. Those are protocols you need to work on with your vet, but in general, clostridial organisms hate oxygen and they hate penicillin, so we need to deliver those two things in some way. That is usually in the form of tubing, water, and penicillin. You need to work with your veterinarian to develop that protocol.
The milk oftentimes is the issue. That's what's causing the Clostridium to overgrow. How we feed it, how we mix it, the temperature, the timing, but we still need to feed it. We just need to fix those management issues so that we can prevent the disease and we can avoid it from happening in the first place. Catching a theme here. That's pretty much the theme of this whole show, management changes to avoid using a needle to solve a problem. Management changes that make you better, spend less time, less money, and make you better overall.
With that, you guys know the drill, comments, questions, scathing rebuttals, those all go to That's Catch us on Twitter @UMNmoosroom and @UMNFarmSafety.
Catch Bradley on Instagram @umnwcrocdairy. Check out our website extension Thank you everybody for listening. We will catch you next week.
All right, you found some bonus episode. Really what I forgot to talk about is that we didn't talk about vaccines at all. That's part of my continual reminder to myself, to my veterinary colleagues, to everyone out there that management usually plays a bigger part than anything we do with a needle. When we talk vaccines for this specific disease process, we're talking about clostridial issues with calves, whether that's bloats or if that's enteritis.
Really the most effective thing to do is to vaccinate your cows for clostridial disease so that that ends up in the colostrum. We're increasing the quality of the colostrum and making it more targeted to an issue that we're having. That's the best way to go. Can you give calves clostridial vaccines? Sure. Do I think it does much good? It definitely doesn't do as much good as just fixing the management issues, and you're still going to have problems if you're giving that vaccine if you don't address the management issues you're having on your farm.
My personal opinion is that I would prefer to not give the calves any vaccines at all. Fix the management issues, and then if you were giving a vaccine, you can pull it from your protocol and you shouldn't have any problems because you addressed the management issue upfront. Now you're saving time, you're saving money. That's the goal. All right. Thank you, everybody. Catch you next week. Bye.
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