Health and management of the nursing calf

Almost all elements of newborn calf health go back to the calf getting good colostrum. Allowing the calf to suckle the dam is the most efficient method of feeding colostrum.

First impressions are everything, and you only get one chance. When it comes to life-long health, make sure colostrum or a good alternative is a calf’s first impression to life.

Colostrum is crucial for newborn calves to help fight diseases. Geof Smith, DVM, Ph.D. in the College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State University says calves that don’t get adequate levels of antibodies or don’t receive colostrum are most at risk for illness. They also shed pathogens into the environment at a much greater rate than calves that received adequate colostrum.

The best situation is for every calf to nurse its dam within the first two to four hours after birth. If that doesn’t happen for some reason, you must help the calf suckle, or provide colostrum from a bottle, esophageal feeder or tube, or use a colostrum substitute.

There are several commercial colostrum replacers, but some are more effective than others. “There are only a few products that I think are very good,” Smith says. “Colostrum replacers are mainly used in the dairy industry, and most commonly when farms are having disease problems in calves. Often, we’ll test calves for passive transfer, with a blood test. If calves are consistently failing these tests, some farms decide to use a colostrum replacer on every newborn calf,” he explained.

In beef cattle, calves are more apt to have adequate passive transfer because colostrum from a beef cow is more concentrated, with higher levels of antibodies per liter. Dairy cows have such a high volume of colostrum that the antibodies are more diluted.

“When feeding a calf colostrum from a beef cow, we don’t need to get as much volume into the calf as we do in the dairy industry,” Smith said.

The primary use of commercial colostrum replacers in beef herds would be for the occasional calf that for some reason is unable to obtain colostrum from its dam. It’s wise to have a few bags of replacer on hand for emergencies. These are easier to keep, and better from a bio-security standpoint than trying to get colostrum from a dairy. A powdered replacer mixed with warm water for immediate feeding can be simpler and easier than milking the cow, or even milking extra colostrum each year to freeze.

“There’s great variation in quality of products, however, and price. You usually get what you pay for,” warned Smith.

Producers should also know there is a difference between colostrum replacers and colostrum supplements. The latter are products (mainly for dairy calves) designed to be given with colostrum.

“Generally they have low IgG concentrations, less than 50 grams,” he explained.

Colostrum replacers are much higher in antibody concentration—at least 150 grams per dose. “In general there are two kinds of replacers. One is made from plasma from blood collected at slaughterhouses. These types of products have been on and off the market; for a while people thought we should ban all blood-based products, but these are considered to have zero risk for transmission of BSE because the organism that causes BSE lives only in the brain; we don’t find it in blood,” said Smith.

“The colostrum replacers made from the spun-off plasma have very low disease risk. Also, they irradiate it, which would kill any bacteria or viruses, but does not harm the antibodies. Excessive heat is what destroys antibodies.”

The other type of replacer is made from bovine colostrum purchased from dairies. “The manufacturers make sure it is high quality and dry it into a powder and irradiate it to kill any pathogens. They contract with dairies and make sure the cows are properly vaccinated, to have antibodies against all the major diseases the calves might be exposed to,” explained Smith.

When choosing a replacer, make sure it has been tested and performs well. You can’t always go by the amount of antibody it contains. “What we found through research is that this is not always the determining factor on how effective it is. We first tried to figure out how much antibody should be in a colostrum replacer, but we tested some replacers that had about 100 grams of IgG that worked fairly well and tested some others with 150 to 180 grams that didn’t work as well to protect the calves. So it’s not as simple as just looking at the numbers,” he said.

“The reason may be the differences in absorption of the IgG by the calf. Some products the calves seem to absorb fairly well, and others not so much. We don’t know why this is, but it may be differences in the manufacturing. I recommend choosing a product that has been tested, that you know has worked.”

A good replacer can be handy when you need to quickly revive a cold-stressed calf or get colostrum into a calf after a difficult birth. “If I go to a farm to assist calving, I always take a couple bags of colostrum replacer. I usually help get the calf up and going after we get it born, or help the producer get it suckling the cow. On a dairy I try to find some frozen colostrum and thaw it, which takes a couple hours. If I have a bag of replacer, I can feed it to the calf and be back in my truck and gone much quicker,” said Smith.

If the dam is a heifer that needs time to bond with the calf and you don’t want to fight her to milk out some colostrum, you can just give the calf some replacer. Then the calf will be off to a good start and can go ahead and find the udder in its own good time.

Frozen colostrum will keep a year or longer in your freezer. “If it’s two years old the quality may be questionable. The thing that damages it the most, however, is if you thaw it and re-freeze it, especially if you do this several times. Every time you re-freeze it you kill more of the antibodies,” Smith warned.

There are diseases that can come through colostrum. “Make sure that the fresh or frozen colostrum you use comes from your own herd, or a herd you trust—that has the same diseases you do or does not have diseases you don’t have,” Smith said. This is one reason to not use dairy colostrum, along with the fact that it is more dilute and won’t have as many antibodies as colostrum from a beef cow.

Make sure the colostrum or colostrum replacer is warm enough when you feed it to the calf.

“It should be above body temperature and feel warm to your finger, but not hot. You can warm a cold calf from the inside if the colostrum is warm,” said Smith. The fluid will lose some heat during feeding and you don’t want to feed it cool to a cold calf. If the calf is nursing from a bottle, the calf will be more interested in it if it’s warm.

The sooner you can get colostrum into the calf, the better. The calf’s ability to absorb antibodies starts to drop after birth, and a cold or stressed calf loses this ability much sooner than a normal calf. — Heather Smith Thomas, WLJ correspondent

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