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Essential oils – Bolstering resilience to neonatal diarrhea challenge

Neonatal animals are faced with numerous enteric challenges early in their life when immunity is still being developed. Despite best efforts from producers to limit the exposure of calves and lambs to pathogens, it is inevitable that some contamination will occur. Antibiotic growth promoters (AGPs) once provided additional protection to neonates but increasing legislative and consumer pressure is reducing the use of AGPs, leaving a gap in animal wellbeing and performance. Essential oils are a management tool that have broad spectrum properties to support gastrointestinal development and maintain eubiosis under stressor challenges that could otherwise lead to diarrhea.

Tyler Turner

In Brief
• A wide range of pathogens commonly found on farms can cause neonatal diarrhea.
• Neonatal animals have naïve immune systems, increasing the likelihood of infection.
• Controlling and eradicating such a broad range of pathogens on farm is challenging.
• Using essential oils to support gastrointestinal development and promote eubiosis in the face of challenge will boost performance.

Losses associated with neonatal mortality can have a substantial economic impact on any production operation. These losses could be due to:

  • Prolonged birth leading to a weak, slow calves or lambs
  • A cool draft causing shivers that burn much needed energy reserves
  • Not receiving sufficient colostrum in early life, leading to passive transfer failure of IgG

These animals are disadvantaged and more susceptible to pathogens in the environment.

Many causes of diarrhea

Given the wide array of pathogens that commonly cause enteric disturbances in neonates, such cases are often labelled by herd or flock health managers as unspecified diarrhea. While much is known about such pathogens, with the National Animal Disease Information Service (NADIS, 2020) a good source of information, on-site control remains a challenge. Vigilance is needed to spot weak animals or early warning signs of diarrhea to take proactive actions to maintain eubiosis and stem the spread among herd mates.

Diarrhea in calves

Calves are born with a naïve immune system and rely on absorbing adequate quantities of good quality colostrum (IgG content) at birth to protect them while their active immunity develops over the first few weeks. Several circumstances can impede adequate transfer beyond just quantity and quality, such as:

  • Night calving delaying administration of colostrum
  • High pathogen load in the calving area
  • Poor hygiene during colostrum collection
  • Cow-calf pathogen transfer

These circumstances place calves at a disadvantage before they are transferred to calf-pens where the pathogen load challenge can heighten via calf-calf or worker-calf transfer. Vulnerability at this stage can be further compounded when available calories inadequately compensate for environmental temperatures, leading to slowed development. Given the genetic value of these replacement heifers to the herd, any loss can be a significant set-back to breeding plans and operational growth.

Early calf losses

Despite the rigorous standard operating procedures (SOPs) regarding colostrum administration and calf care in place on most commercial farms, early losses still occur. Surveys conducted in the USA by the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) indicated that over 50% of pre-weaned heifer losses can be attributed to diarrhea (USDA, 2014), and this number has been relatively constant since 1996 (Virtala et al., 1996).

Over 50% of pre-weaned heifer losses in the USA can be attributed to diarrhea.

When investigating patterns associated with early calf mortality, Svensson et al. (2003) highlighted that diarrhea related deaths occurred predominantly in the first weeks, whereas respiratory issues emerged more often post-weaning. Prevelance of respiratory issues post-weaning may be linked to weakened immunity early in life. These early diseases can delay growth, leading to missed milestones in the breeding program and potentially impacting lifetime productivity (Trilk and Münch, 2008). Producers of other small ruminants are facing similar challenges with lambs and kids.

Neonates face more challenges

These findings do not suggest poor management, only that there are several challenges faced by neonates at a critical time in their development and that managers need to use all the tools available to safeguard early gastrointestinal health.

There are several challenges faced by neonates at a critical time in their development.

Even at low challenge levels, cumulative pressure can hinder performance as nutrients are used to resist and recuperate from the challenge. This can delay the development and functionality of the gastrointestinal tract which may only become apparent through complications during diet transition.

Numerous studies have indicated that early development problems can have a significant impact on the lifetime performance of replacement heifers. Producers need solutions to help them achieve the genetic potential of their livestock.

Achieving genetic potential

With backing from the livestock industry, producers are reducing or eliminating the prophylactic or metaphylactic use of antibiotics to reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance on-site and in the food chain. Phytogenic feed additives. However, the challenges still remain, leaving producers looking for solutions to support eubiosis, in order to build resilience against stressor challenges that may lead to diarrhea. Essential oils are a potential solution gaining prominence among scientists and livestock producers given their broad-spectrum efficacy towards maintaining strong gastrointestinal functionality and supporting nutrient absorbance.

Essential oils are plant-derived compounds widely recognized for anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as microbiota modulating effects. Combinations of essential oils work in synergy support gastrointestinal integrity and eubiosis, thereby building greater resilience against pathogen challenge. BIOMIN has been a pioneer in the development and application of complex essential oil blends to give the widest efficacy possible to support animal wellbeing and efficiency.

Essential oils help support gastrointestinal health and resilience to stressor challenges that can lead to diarrhea.

Microbiota modulating effects of essential oils

Essential oils encompass a broad family of compounds which can exhibit microbiota modulating effects in various ways. By interacting with the membrane of pathogenic bacteria, essential oils can induce ion leakage, forcing energy to be diverted towards re-establishing osmotic pressure, thus inhibiting growth. Interfering with the membrane can also inhibit cell wall synthesis, reducing the ability of the bacteria to grow and multiply.

Essential oils can disrupt pathogenic bacterial growth by inhibiting the enzymes involved in energy metabolism or protein synthesis. In the case of protein metabolism, when essential oils disrupt flagellin synthesis, this leads to bacteria with no flagella or severely inhibited motility (Nazzaro et al., 2013). Essential oils are most effective against pathogens with single membranes. However, given the hydrophobic nature of essential oils, those of low molecular weight can also disrupt cell function of Gram-negative bacteria, such as E. coli and Salmonella.

In addition to microbiota modulating effects, essential oils can disrupt the cross-communication between pathogenic bacteria, termed “quorum quenching”, which reduces the ability of the pathogen to mount the coordinated challenge necessary to induce diarrhea. Given the versatility and broad spectrum of bioreceptors that essential oils can interact with, their full potential to moderate pathogens remains unexplored.

BIOMIN solution

The BIOMIN solution to address low vitality and neonatal diarrhea in calves and other small ruminants is Digestarom® P.E.P. liquid. Digestarom® P.E.P. liquid provides a synergistic blend of essential oils in combination with a rapid release energy source from medium chain triglycerides and extra antioxidative support from vitamin E.

Producers have commended the high efficacy and rapid response delivered by Digestarom® P.E.P. liquid as part of a neonatal care SOP, giving their young animals a kickstart towards better gut health and stable eubiosis for greater resilience against stressor challenges that can contribute to acute outbreaks of diarrhea.

Benefits in calves

Ruminants, such as calves, are unique in that as early neonates the oesophageal groove closes to shuttle milk past the rumen, straight into the abomasum for digestion and absorption in the intestines (Figure 1). This reflex works as an advantage when applying Digestarom® P.E.P. liquid shortly before feeding. With the oesophageal groove closed, Digestarom® P.E.P. liquid will be washed directly into the lower gastrointestinal tract where it will be most effective in strengthening gut integrity and supporting eubiosis to manage stressors that can cause diarrhea.

Suckling stimulates the oesophageal groove to close directing milk away from the rumen and directly to the abomasum for digestion.
Figure 1. Suckling stimulates the oesophageal groove to close directing milk away from the rumen and directly to the abomasum for digestion.

Boosting performance in lambs

Even in situations where clinical diarrhea is not apparent, an extra boost to gut development and wellbeing in early life can have significant impacts on subsequent performance. In a case study in lambs, parallel groups were raised under the same conditions with one group given Digestarom® P.E.P. liquid on day 1 and again on day 30. By the end of the observation period on day 75, the lambs that received Digestarom® P.E.P. liquid were 3.2 kg heavier than those in the control group. Furthermore, the average daily gain of the Digestarom® P.E.P. liquid lambs from day 30 to day 75 was 92 g/d more, indicating that the lambs in the Digestarom® P.E.P. liquid group were coping better with the stress associated with diet transition as they began foraging and encountering new enteric challenges from the pasture.

Digestarom® P.E.P. improves performance

Given its high efficacy and ease of use, Digestarom® P.E.P. liquid should be part of every neonatal health SOP as a safeguard to boost gut integrity and resilience against early stressor challenges causing performance losses or mortalities.


NADIS, (2020). Index of Diseases. [online] Available at: https://www.nadis.org.uk/disease-a-z/cattle/ [Accessed 02.05.2020].

Nazzaro, F., Fratinni, F., De Martino, L., Coppola, R. and De Feo, V. (2013). Effects of essential oils on pathogenic bacteria. Pharmaceuticals. 6(12), 1451-1474.

Steele, M.A., Rushen, J. and de Passille, A.M. (2015). Advancements in automated feeding for calves: where are we today and where we’ll be tomorrow. WCDS Advances in Dairy Technology. 2(7), 49-59.

Svensson, C., Lundborg, K., Emanuelson, U. and Olsson, S-O. (2003). Morbidity in Swedish dairy calves from birth to 90 days of age and individual calf-level risk factors for infectious diseases. Preventative Veterinary Medicine. 58(3-4), 179-197.

Trilk, J. and Münch, K. 2008. Zusammenhänge zwischen Kälbergesundheit, Wachstumsverlauf und späteren Leistungen bei Milchrindern. Zuchtungskunde. 80(6), 461-472.

USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). (2014). Dairy 2014 – Health and Management Practices on US Dairy Operations, 2014. [online] Available at: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/nahms/dairy/downloads/dairy14/Dairy14_dr_PartIII.pdf [Accessed 21.05.2020].

Virtala, A-M., Mechor, G., Gröhn, Y. and Erb, H.N. (1996). The effect of calfhood diseases on growth of female dairy calves during the first 3 months of life in New York State. Journal of Dairy Science. 79(6), 1040-1049.