Effect of late-gestation maternal heat stress on growth and immune function of dairy calves

J Dairy Sci. 2012 Dec;95(12):7128-36. doi: 10.3168/jds.2012-5697. Epub 2012 Sep 26.


Heat stress during the dry period affects the cow's mammary gland development, metabolism, and immunity during the transition period. However, the effect of late-gestation heat stress on calf performance and immune status is unknown. Our objective was to evaluate the effect of heat stress during the final ~45 d of gestation on growth and immune function of calves. Calves (17/treatment) were born to cows that were exposed to cooling (CL) or heat stress (HT) during the dry period. Only heifer calves (CL, n=12; HT, n=9) were used in measurements of growth and immune status after birth. Heifer calves were managed under identical conditions. All were fed 3.78 L of colostrum from their respective dams within 4 h of birth and were weaned at 2 mo of age (MOA). Body weight (BW) was obtained at weaning and then monthly until 7 MOA. Withers height (WH) was measured monthly from 3 to 7 MOA. Hematocrit and plasma total protein were assessed at birth, 1, 4, 7, 11, 14, 18, 21, 25, and 28 d of age. Total serum IgG was evaluated at 1, 4, 7, 11, 14, 18, 21, 25, and 28 d of age, and apparent efficiency of absorption was calculated. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells were isolated at 7, 28, 42, and 56 d of age, and proliferation rate was measured by (3)H-thymidine incorporation in vitro. Blood cortisol concentration was measured in the dams during the dry period and in calves in the preweaning period. Gestation length was 4d shorter for HT cows compared with CL cows. Calves from CL cows had greater BW than calves from HT cows at birth (42.5 vs. 36.5 kg). Compared with CL heifers, HT heifers had decreased weaning BW (78.5 vs. 65.9 kg) but similar BW (154.6 vs. 146.4 kg) and WH (104.8 vs. 103.4 cm) from 3 to 7 MOA. Compared with CL, heifers from HT cows had less total plasma protein (6.3 vs. 5.9 g/dL), total serum IgG (1,577.3 vs. 1,057.8 mg/dL), and apparent efficiency of absorption (33.6 vs. 19.2%), and tended to have decreased hematocrit (33 vs. 30%). Additionally, CL heifers had greater peripheral blood mononuclear cell proliferation relative to HT heifers (23.8 vs. 14.1 fold). Compared with CL, late-gestation HT did not affect the blood cortisol concentration of dams during the dry period or that of the calves in the preweaning period, but CL calves tended to have increased circulating cortisol at birth (7.6 vs. 5.7 µg/dL). We conclude that heat stress of the dam during the dry period compromises the fetal growth and immune function of offspring from birth through weaning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn / growth & development*
  • Animals, Newborn / immunology
  • Blood Proteins / analysis
  • Cattle / growth & development*
  • Cattle / immunology
  • Female
  • Gestational Age
  • Heat Stress Disorders / physiopathology
  • Heat Stress Disorders / veterinary*
  • Hematocrit / veterinary
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Immunity, Cellular / physiology
  • Leukocytes, Mononuclear / physiology
  • Pregnancy


  • Blood Proteins
  • Hydrocortisone