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Tending to calves, the critical first 24 hours

Nursing calves - photo by Shawna WeaverEstablishing the health of newborn calves has been a difficult process that even modern techniques and practices haven’t been able to master. While the combination of our increasing knowledge of biology and improved technology has made it a little easier, ensuring the health of calves is still far from a sure thing. In a presentation at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Hugh Chester-Jones and Neil Broadwater stated that the five Cs were essential for a healthy start in calves, and these Cs are:

  • Calories
  • Cleanliness
  • Comfort
  • Consistency
  • Colostrum
Beef Master

Beef Master Systems

While FarmTek can provide you with structures, like the Beef Master™ Systems, that furnish a clean and comfortable environment and FodderPro Feed Systems for consistent feeding schedules and plenty of calories, administering colostrum is largely left in the hands of our customers. Administering a colostrum management program is just as important – if not more important – than the other four Cs, and properly feeding colostrum in the first 24 hours can lead to significantly healthier herds and improve the overall value of your beef or dairy operation.

Basics of Colostrum

Colostrum is a yellowish liquid, very similar to milk, that is produced prior to calving. It is incredibly rich in protein, minerals and vitamins A, D and E, and it can also provide energy to newborns. While these nutrients and its energy-producing potential are certainly positive factors, it is the concentration of antibodies and immunoglobulins that makes colostrum so beneficial. Providing new born calves with high-quality colostrum in the first 24 hours is imperative to jumpstarting their immune system and transferring passive immunity. Managing colostrum should be considered by operations everywhere, because it can establish a cow’s lifelong immune capacity and promote overall health.

Newborn calfHowever, colostrum won’t provide the necessary benefits if it is fed too late after birth. Calves are born without any antibodies, and as they grow and develop prior to birth it is their mother’s body and immune system that protects them. During the first 24 hours of life, a calf is able to absorb antibodies and immunoglobulins through the wall of its intestines. After being absorbed, they enter the blood stream and circulate through the body, providing essential immune support. Feeding colostrum within an hour of birth is ideal. In most cases, calves will only be able to absorb 30 percent of the antibodies, and as hours pass, the ability for absorption greatly decreases. At about six hours a calf will only be able to absorb approximately 66 percent of what it initially could, and after a full day, that number is reduced to a mere 10 percent.

Newborn calf

Feeding High-Quality Colostrum

Clearly colostrum is an important part of healthy calving and there are a number of things that can be done to maximize the quality of a cow’s colostrum. It should come from a vaccinated cow that has a history of good health. Disease can be passed through colostrum, so cows with pre-existing diseases shouldn’t be providing it. High-quality colostrom is extracted within four hours of calving, and it shouldn’t be stored for any longer than 5 days, unless it’s frozen.

Colostrum will have to be fed to calves. As cows have evolved, their udders have become much larger and hang lower to the ground, and this can make feeding naturally very difficult for newborns. All of the regular milking equipment will have to be sanitized and so will the mother’s udders. Contamination can have devastating effects on colostrum, so purity is imperative. Blood and bacteria are common contaminants, and both can come from the udders. Bacteria can obviously lead to disease, like Johne’s disease which infects the digestive tract, but it can also reduce the calf’s ability to absorb the nutrients and immunoglobulins found in colostrum.

Colostrum feeding calf

The following information is from Chester-Jones and Broadwater’s presentation and is a good general guideline for feeding colostrum.

  • 100 lb. calves should get a gallon immediately after birth and a 1/2 gallon at 12 hours.
  • 50-100 lb. calves should get 3/4 of a gallon immediately after birth and a 1/2 gallon at 12 hours.
  • 50 lb. and under calves should get 1/2 a gallon immediately after birth and a 1/2 gallon at 12 hours.

Newborns will usually consume about a 1/2 gallon on their own through a bottle, but after this they tend to refuse the rest. This makes stomach tubing a necessity, and it’s generally a good idea to just start there.

Stomach tubing

The good thing about managing colostrum is that it is easy to identify its effectiveness. Since immunoglobulin levels are so closely associated to total protein levels, blood samples can be taken after 24 hours. If a calf has 5.5 grams per deciliter or greater, it received a proper and most-likely effective dose.

CalfThis line of 5.5 grams per deciliter often dictates if a cow will have high immunity versus low immunity. Having cows with high immunity will greatly improve any beef or dairy business. Cows with high immunity tend to have higher weight gains and better feed conversion, both of which can improve profits. High immunity also reduces the probability of scours, lowering antibiotic and vet bills, but most importantly, mortality is greatly reduced. Mortality in calves with low immunity is just over 20 percent, while it is approximately 8.5 percent in calves with high immunity. This means that more times than not a calf that is not fed any colostrum will have two times the chances of dying, so colostrum’s importance can’t be understated.

Clearly colostrum is an essential part to beef and dairy operations, and while this is just an introduction to administering colostrum, there is no doubt that colostrum is an essential part of raising healthy livestock and profitable herds. For those with questions, please leave us a comment we’d love to hear from you and help in anyway.

Young, healthy calf

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Well, this may be for dairy cattle, but we have free range Galloways. They calve easily and their calves do not get/require anything else but mama. We have a herd of 26 and the calves are all strong and healthy without mans’ intervention.

    February 13, 2015
    • As long as your calves are happy and healthy, we are glad to hear it Sue! A colostrum management program isn’t for everyone, but it has proved highly beneficial for those that follow it.
      Thanks for reading.

      February 16, 2015

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