May 20 2024 11:09 AM

Understanding and managing oxidative stress is integral to calf health and farm sustainability.

The following is sponsored content provided by Cargill. Written by Tana Dennis, PhD, PAS, Cargill Young Animal Nutrition Dairy Technology Application Lead,

Calfhood diseases can significantly affect heifer replacement rates, short-term profitability, and long-term sustainability. One often overlooked aspect contributing to this is oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress has two key players: free radicals and antioxidants.

  • Free radicals are unstable molecules because they have an unpaired electron. Electrons prefer to be paired and when left unpaired are highly reactive. Formation of free radicals can happen naturally in the body through metabolic functions, exercise, inflammation, illness, infection, and stress or through external factors like pollution and radiation.
  • Antioxidants can stabilize free radicals by giving up an electron. A balanced diet helps the body acquire antioxidants, thus reducing free radicals.

Oxidative stress occurs in a calf when the body produces too many free radicals and too few antioxidants to regulate them. The abundant free radicals will scavenge cells to gain an extra electron causing damage to cells and overtime can lead to disease. Both free radicals and antioxidants are part of a natural and healthy functioning calf, but oxidative stress is not.

Maintaining balance between antioxidants and free radicals is essential for keeping oxidative stress at bay. A calf can synthesize antioxidants but often also needs supplementation in the diet. When we think about our own health, we may take antioxidant supplements during cold and flu season to prepare for the risk of getting sick. And if we do catch a cold, we continue taking it because it can get us back to feeling normal more quickly. A similar tactic can be applied to calf nutrition. To keep oxidative stress at bay:
  • Provide adequate intake of high-quality colostrum to provide essential nutrients and antioxidants.
  • Feed antioxidants such as vitamins E and C, selenium, and certain phytochemicals into the calf's diet to help neutralize free radicals and reduce oxidative stress.
  • Supplement selenium, copper, zinc, and manganese to help support the activity of antioxidant enzymes in the body.
  • Feed higher milk allowances and energy-dense calf starters to ensure sufficient energy for growth and immune function — reducing susceptibility to disease.
It’s important to remember that a calf has multiple stressful events during the first two months of life: birth, transportation, disbudding, castration, vaccination, and weaning. These stressors, combined with the calf’s immature immune system, can heighten the occurrence of oxidative stress and calfhood diseases.

Understanding and managing oxidative stress is integral to calf health and farm sustainability. By identifying the causes, managing them, and feeding a balanced diet you can minimize the negative impacts of oxidative stress and promote growth.