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Characteristics of dairy calf ranches: Morbidity, mortality, antibiotic use practices, and biosecurity and biocontainment practices

Walker, W.L., Epperson, W.B., Wittum, T.E., Lord, L.K., Rajala-Schultz, P.J., Lakritz, J.
Journal of dairy science 2012 v.95 no.4 pp. 2204-2214
antibiotics, biocontainment, biosecurity, cross-sectional studies, dairy calves, dairy industry, demographic statistics, diarrhea, direct contact, farms, heifers, milk replacer, morbidity, mortality, passive immunity, professionals, ranching, rearing, statistics, surveys, veterinarians, United States
The utilization of farming operations specializing in rearing dairy heifer calves has increased since the early 1990s. However, these operations have not been as well characterized as US dairy operations with respect to demographic and health-related measures, particularly during the preweaning period. The objective of this study was to characterize morbidity, mortality, antibiotic use, and biosecurity and biocontainment practices on operations rearing preweaned heifers only or preweaned heifer and bull calves (mixed) in the United States. A cross-sectional survey was performed using a standardized method that included a preletter, initial survey, postcard follow-up, and second survey delivered by mail. Additional follow-up contacts were attempted by telephone. Descriptive statistics for morbidity, mortality, antibiotic use, and biosecurity and biocontainment practices were computed at both the operation and calf levels. The overall response rate was 50%. Crude yearly mortality averaged 6.9% at the calf level, with the median operation reporting 3.6% mortality. Diarrhea was experienced by 18% of calves, with 73% receiving an antibiotic. The median operation reported 20% diarrhea morbidity with 83% receiving an antibiotic. Respiratory disease was experienced by 9.0% of calves, with 82% receiving an antibiotic. The median operation reported 5.3% respiratory morbidity, with 100% receiving an antibiotic. Heifer-only and mixed operations did not differ in operation median morbidity, mortality, or antibiotic treatment rates. Written antibiotic protocols were available on 65% of operations. Medicated milk replacer was used by 56% of operations. Passive immunity was routinely measured by 46% of operations. Direct contact between calves in housing units was not allowed by 45% of operations. Of all farms informed of disease concerns at the source farm, 76% changed their daily routine as a result. Almost all operations uniquely identified calves and recorded mortality. The heifer-only and mixed operations in this study were similar to US dairy operations for key health, antibiotic use, and biosecurity and biocontainment metrics. This research provides initial estimates of key demographics usable by calf ranches, veterinarians, and other professionals serving this segment of the US dairy industry.