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BREEDING AND CALVES SPECIAL: Using probiotics to boost calf health

CALVES are constantly faced with a barrage of attacks by pathogens but research shows supplementation with immune-boosting probiotics could help to tip the balance in their favour.

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When calves are exposed to unhygienic conditions the bad bacteria can overwhelm the good.
When calves are exposed to unhygienic conditions the bad bacteria can overwhelm the good.

It is widely understood rearing healthy and productive calves relies heavily on fulfilling best practice including timely and adequate colostrum intakes, excellent hygiene and warm and dry housing.

 

As well as this, reduced levels of disease in the calf pens helps to address the pressure faced by farmers to cut down the use of antibiotics.

 

Neil Howie, veterinary and technical support for Agri-King, says: “From their first colostrum feeds onwards, whatever goes in a calf’s mouth is likely to carry bugs with it and this is a risk for the health of the calf.

 

“Scrupulous hygiene of feeding equipment and clean, dry housing are essential to limit the number of disease causing organisms the calf will ingest.

 

“When a calf grows in a clean environment, its guts still become home to a multitude of normal bacteria as its microbiome develops, but when calves are exposed to unhygienic conditions, bad bacteria can overwhelm the good.”

 

Currently a buzz word in human health and well-being, the ‘microbiome’ is the population of organisms in and on an animal which is not genetically the same as the host animal, this population comprises both good and bad bacteria.

 

Mr Howie adds: “Equally, if the calf does not have an effective immune system, through inadequate colostrum intake, or because it is being underfed, or chilled, or is fighting other infections, a ‘normal’ level of harmful bacteria may be enough to overcome the defences of the calf and cause disease.”

 

When a calf is exposed to harmful organisms in its gut, the defence system fighting the attack burns energy and depletes the immune resources, leaving the calf more at risk of developing other infections.

Mr Howie says: “We can tip the balance in favour of the calf by supplementing with healthy bugs and nutrients which support gut function and stability in the form of pre and probiotics.”

 

Probiotics are live organisms, mainly bacteria and yeasts which are harmless to the calf and support well-being. They are non-living nutrients which support health by favouring ‘good’ bugs in the microbiome and by modulating inflammation and supporting immune function.

 

“Combinations of pre and probiotics are called synbiotics if they have been shown to synergise, this means their components have been shown to work together to have more effect than the sum of their individual functions,” he adds.

 

“A good synbiotic will have a combination of live bacteria and live yeast. The bacteria will multiply faster than pathogenic bacteria, crowding out the bad bacteria by ‘competitive exclusion’.”

 

As the bacteria grows, it releases lactic acid, which slightly alters the environment in the gut, and makes it less suitable for the population of pathogenic bacteria.

 

He says the yeast element helps with gut stability, stimulates rumen development and acts as a ‘decoy’, capturing harmful bacteria and carrying them away in the muck.

 

The complex sugar and yeast cell wall components of the synbiotics help to feed the probiotic bacteria, enhancing their function. As well as this, by improving the stability of the gut wall, the risk of viral and protozoal infections such as rotavirus, coccidiosis and cryptosporidia is reduced.

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