Calf Loss Project Quantifying the most common causes of calf loss in Florida
Producing and raising healthy calves is integral to profitability and success of cow-calf operations.The goal of the study is to quantify causes ofcalf loss, an essential piece of data for Florida cattlemen to make highly informed production decisions and implement measures to improve overall production and economic return. The average reported loss of 8% to the Florida industry equates to 64,000 calves a year (based on 800,000 calves) and the number could be much higher on some ranches some years. A reduction in calf loss of just 1% on average is millions of dollars recovery to the industry. After many months of preparation, the calf loss team has started collecting data on two ranches (Diamond K Cattle Company and Longino Ranch) with a third to be implemented by the end of year (Buck Island Ranch).
Identifying the most common causes of calf loss in Florida is difficult due to the high logistical issues. The question remains, how much calf loss in Florida is caused by predators (Coyote, Black Bear, and Panther) compared to other causes (disease, nutrient deficiency, still births, etc.), and where should we be focusing our efforts to reduce calf loss the most?
Since most calf loss occurs within the first 48 hours - 10 days after birth, we focused on finding tools that would allow researchers to find newly born calves and continue tracking them after birth. Our approach starts with being alerted to when a cow is about to calf, and this is achieved using birthing sensors that are monitored by a central base station. During pregnancy checks, conducted by collaborating veterinarians, each cow in the study receives a sensor placed against their cervix which remains until pushed out by parturition.
Shelby Albritton and Dr. Raoul Boughton prepare and place sensors in cows.
Rapid changes in temperature, as sensor is expelled, switch sensor into beacon mode which is picked up by central base station. The base station then pushes that information to responder’s cell phones focusing the team onto the calving event. In the field, ranchers and researchers alike investigate each birth event
Mary-Jene and Heath Crum responding to calving alerts and searching pastures for calves. Mary-Jene finds her first sensor, 84E7 from Cow 68, who has a very healthy black bull calf.
Dr. Raoul Boughton putting the final touches on calving tower at Longino Ranch.
Finding and retrieving sensors from the field can be a tedious task and Dr. Raoul Boughton is working with John Balbian from JMB North America to improve that functionality as the project continues.
Healthy calves are match tagged with their mother and given a second trackable Very High Frequency (VHF) eartag. This VHF tag produces a continuous pulse transmission at a specific frequency for each eartag, but when a calf becomes completely stationary for more than 2hrs that pulse is doubled in rate and the team can check on the calf. Also, if a frequency disappears as can occur in some predation events the team can search further afield for the eartag. The base station has a second function in that it also continuously monitors all VHF eartags and a daily report can be checked to ascertain if any calves have gone astray. The VHF technology was developed originally for wildlife monitoring studies and the team has brought both the birthing sensors and VHF tags together on a remote solar powered base station tower to monitor calves from birth to weaning across 600 acre areas.
Newborn calf given IF 90 in left ear and small VHF tag in right ear allowing the calf to be found via frequency tracking and for alerting any mortality events on the calf.
Heath Crum checking for mortality signals on VHF tagged calves on Mary-Jene Koenes Diamond K Cattle Ranch at the Big Cypress Seminole Reserve.
The “fancy” monitoring only gets the team so far in that it signals critical events. The tracking of calves, field observations, and rapid response to events is critical to success of the study. Once a calf loss event is observed all attempts are made to identify what caused death. This is most difficult on deaths that occur during difficult births (dystocia) or shortly after, as the calf could be still born, premature, weak, deformed and when these events happen vultures and other predators can be attracted and make determination of scavenged carcass difficult. If our signals, monitoring, and responses are rapid enough we can collect the carcasses of dead calves and have them necropsied shortly (<24hrs) after post mortem by the FDACS Bronson Animal Disease and Diagnostic Laboratory (BADDL). Rapid responses reduce degradation of animal tissues and make determination of causes possible. Further determination is possible through direct consultation with collaborating veterinarians, Dr. Liz Steele and Dr. John Yelvington, on any symptoms shown in the field. Older calves thought to have been healthy found with evidence suggesting a predator was involved in death will be investigated in collaboration with Florida Wildlife Conservation (FWC) Commission and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) biologist to determine predator species, and follow up necropsy by BADDL.
Recommendation of panel tests to be conducted on both the cow and calf following a calf mortality event and compared to healthy cow-calf pairs.
The study is only in early stages and calving has just begun. Already, the team has captured two dystocia causes of death, a still born death followed by vulture scavenging, a stillborn twin, an unhealthy weak calf with nasal mucus discharge and breathing difficulties, and a premature calf born blind that was unable to nurse. The calf loss team is made up of a dedicated group of UF/IFAS researchers and extension agents, ranchers, private veterinarians, FDACS BADDL diagnosticians, and FWC and USFWS biologists. In addition, part of this research will be used to support graduate student, Kelly Koriakin.
This project was made possible by funding from the Florida Cattleman's Association. Collaborators: Gene Lollis, MAERC/Buck Island Ranch. Dr. Liz Steele and Dr. John Yelvington, Ridge Large Animal Veterinary Services. Alex Johns, Seminole Beef/Seminole Tribe of Florida. Mary-Jene Koenes, Diamond K Cattle Ranch. Heath Crum...Cliff Coddington, Longino Ranch. Wes Carlton, Fish Branch Ranch. Dr. Short and Dr. Reddi, FDACS Bronson Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory. South Florida Beef Forage Program - Extension Agents, IFAS. Dr. Dave Onorato, Florida Wildlife Commission. David Shindle, USFWS. Contributors: John Balbian, JMB North America.