Washington State University researchers are trying to discover the reason behind mysterious calf deaths related to what is commonly known as “weak calf syndrome.”
John R. Wenz, a veterinarian with the field disease investigation unit of the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, said the syndrome was first identified in 1966. Little is known, however, about what causes the calf deaths and how frequent they are, which is one reason researchers want to look into it.
“We’re not really sure what the cause is,” Wenz said. “It’s just a collection of signs associated with a disease, but it’s not a clearly defined disease.”
Wenz said animals suffering from weak calf syndrome generally are born normally and appear to be in good heath, but within a day or two – or even hours – the calf mysteriously crumples up and dies.
“And there’s no reason for it that (the livestock owners) can identify,” Wenz said.
The syndrome appears to happen in waves – some years cattlemen will suffer significant calf losses, while other times those deaths are infrequent.
“You’ll have some bad years and some will say, ‘This is the worst year I’ve seen in 20 years.’ … There are some years that there could be devastating losses. There seems to be good years and bad years. Here at WSU it’s been a bad year and that gets people fired up.”
Wenz pointed to two different cattlemen – one with a herd of 2,000 cattle who recently lost 200 calves and another who had 90 head of cattle and lost 23 calves.
Some believe weak calf syndrome might be related to harsh winters, such as the one this year.
Others believe it is associated with poor nutrition. Still others point to calves that had problems being born; cows with long, difficult labors sometimes produce offspring that are less vigorous than others.
Wenz said one of the focuses will be on steroids created during the calving period designed to protect the calves from brain damage.
“And there may not be enough of that being produced when the cows are stressed. It could be nutritional stress; it could be a weather stress that then leads to decreased production.”
“For years this has smoldered on,” Wenz said. “The point of the study is to get a better understanding of what’s happening here.
“We’re doing some basic epidemiology; going to county cattlemen meetings to find out (what producers’ experiences are) and we’ll do a case control study. … It’s worth digging into so people have better answers. If you have a herd that has that problem, here’s what you can do to address it. … Hopefully we can get some better understanding of what those factors are and identify herds that are having a problem and what we can do to reduce the problem.“
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.