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A Cohort Study Risk Factor Analysis for Endemic Disease in Pre-Weaned Dairy Heifer Calves

Johnson, KF; Chancellor, N; Wathes, DC


KF Johnson

N Chancellor

DC Wathes


Simple Summary Most dairy heifer calves are removed from their dam and reared on milk from birth until weaning at around nine weeks of age. During this period they are susceptible to diseases which reduce their welfare and later performance in the dairy herd and can cause mortality. This study investigated the risk factors for disease on 11 UK dairy farms. Each calf received a weekly clinical examination. Out of 492 heifers recruited, diarrhoea, bovine respiratory disease (BRD) and umbilical disease were recorded in 48.2%, 45.9% and 28.7%, respectively. This was assessed using a composite disease score (CDS), reflecting severity and duration. The CDS for diarrhoea decreased when more calves were born in the same week, but this increased the risk of umbilical disease. The CDS for BRD was reduced by housing calves in fixed groups and feeding them more milk. Being born at a warmer time of year reduced the severity of BRD but increased it for umbilical disease. Calves acquire their initial immunity by ingesting antibodies in colostrum. Better immunity reduced the severity of BRD but failed to protect against diarrhoea or umbilical disease. Calves with a higher circulating concentration of the metabolic hormone insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) experienced less severe disease. Providing farmers and veterinarians with a better understanding of such risk factors helps them to improve their management practices to reduce disease incidence. Dairy heifer calves experience high levels of contagious disease during their preweaning period, which may result in poor welfare, reduced performance or mortality. We determined risk factors for disease in a cohort study of 492 heifers recruited from 11 commercial UK dairy farms. Every animal received a weekly examination by a veterinarian from birth to nine weeks using the Wisconsin scoring system. Multivariable models were constructed using a hierarchical model with calf nested within farm. Outcome variables for each disease included a binary outcome (yes/no), disease duration and a composite disease score (CDS) including both severity and duration. Diarrhoea, bovine respiratory disease (BRD) and umbilical disease were recorded in 48.2%, 45.9% and 28.7% of calves, respectively. A higher heifer calving intensity in the week of birth reduced the CDS for diarrhoea, with a marginal benefit of improved passive transfer (serum immunoglobulin G (IgG) measured at recruitment). The CDS for BRD was reduced by housing in fixed groups, higher mean temperature in month of birth, increasing milk solids fed, increasing IgG, and higher plasma IGF-1 at recruitment. Conversely, higher calving intensity and higher temperature both increased the CDS for umbilical disease, whereas high IGF-1 was again protective. Although good passive transfer reduced the severity of BRD, it was not significant in models for diarrhoea and umbilical disease, emphasising the need to optimise other aspects of management. Measuring IGF-1 in the first week was a useful additional indicator for disease risk.


Johnson, K., Chancellor, N., & Wathes, D. (2021). A Cohort Study Risk Factor Analysis for Endemic Disease in Pre-Weaned Dairy Heifer Calves. Animals, 11(2),

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jan 29, 2021
Publication Date 2021
Deposit Date Nov 22, 2021
Publicly Available Date Nov 22, 2021
Print ISSN 2076-2615
Publisher MDPI
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 11
Issue 2
Keywords calf; heifer; dairy; diarrhoea; bovine respiratory disease; umbilical disease; colostrum; milk; IGF-1
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