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Fecal cortisol metabolites reflect transport stress in 3-month-old dairy calves pre- and postweaning: A pilot study

Measurement of fecal cortisol metabolites (FGCM) is a well-established, noninvasive method to assess stress in adult dairy cattle. However, this procedure has not yet been validated for unweaned dairy calves, and it can be expected that the milk proportion of the diet may influence the resulting FGCM concentrations. The aim of this study was therefore to assess whether a peak in FGCM concentrations in response to a stressor can be measured in unweaned dairy calves on a largely milk-based diet. If so, further objectives were to examine whether maximum FGCM concentrations, as well as the time lag until they are reached, are comparable to the values in the same calves on a solid-based diet after weaning. For this study, 5 German Holstein calves of about 3 mo of age (93 to 102 d preweaning) were exposed to a 45 min transport stressor once before and once after weaning, which was 3 wk apart. All voided fecal samples were collected for 24 h after termination of the transport. Fecal cortisol metabolites were analyzed with an 11-oxoetiocholanolone enzyme immunoassay and changes in FGCM concentrations relative to the individual baseline (FGCMrel) were calculated. Results showed a clear peak in FGCM concentrations on both diet types. The peak FGCMrel concentrations tended to be higher when the calves were on the preweaning diet (at peak: +233 ± 25% increase relative to baseline) in comparison to the postweaning diet (+124 ± 23%). Considering the whole 24 h sampling period, the FGCMrel concentrations for all calves were significantly higher on the preweaning diet than on the postweaning diet. There was also a numerical difference in the delay between occurrence of the stressor and appearance of the peak FGCMrel concentrations in feces, as the time lag was 1.5 ± 1.2 h longer when the calves were on the preweaning diet compared with the postweaning diet. In conclusion, our results suggest that FGCM concentrations are a useful stress marker for unweaned dairy calves in the same way they are for older cattle, but that FGCMrel concentrations tend to be higher in unweaned than in weaned calves and are thus not directly comparable.

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