Mysterious epidemic kills calves on Midwestern cattle farms

April 18, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

CHATSWORTH, Ill. -- Any other year, Ken Kurtenbach' crossbred beef cows would be out in the pasture by now, tearing at the sweet spring grass and watching their newborn calves hop in the sunshine.

But this cold, wet spring, the grass is only beginning to turn green, the mud is deep enough to suck a boot off, and Mr. Kurtenbach and his 25 cows are still in the barn, battling a mystery plague that is felling newborn calves by the hundreds across the Midwest.

The problem, which has veterinarians baffled and farmers like Mr. Kurtenbach worried sick, is loosely termed "weak calf syndrome."

Never clearly understood, it occurs every decade or so, but it has rarely before -- if ever -- claimed the kind of numbers it has this spring.

"This year is probably the worst I've ever seen, and I've been here 20 years," said Dr. Doug Hoefling, head of the Illinois Department of Agriculture's animal disease laboratory in Galesburg, which performs exploratory autopsies.

Normally, the lab sees only a handful of cases a year. "Two per month is probably an exaggeration," Dr. Hoefling said.

But this year, at least 20 cases a week are pouring into the Galesburg, Ill., lab and another Illinois state lab in Centralia, a flood of limp young bodies and farmers' lost hopes. States including Kansas, Iowa and Missouri are reporting similar problems.

Calves born with the syndrome -- including more than a half-dozen at Mr. Kurtenbach's farm this spring -- are listless and have difficulty standing and nursing. Some appear mentally impaired and show no interest in anything. Farmers call them "dummy calves."

He, like many farmers, attributes the problem in part to the damp, cold weather that has kept the state's estimated 571,000 beef cattle in barns and feed lots long after they normally would have been turned out to pasture.

In the lots, the cattle must eat hay instead of the more nutritious spring grass. And diseases spread quickly when cattle are bunched together rather than spread out on open pasture.

Cattle specialists think last year's weather also is playing a role. Both the hay and corn crops now being used to feed cattle were robbed of nutrients by rainy weather that leached away nutrients during harvest last year, according to Dr. Paul Walker, a beef specialist at Illinois State University.

But nobody knows for sure.

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