By Ann Hoskins, Vita Plus Calf Products Coordinator
Calves are born without immunity to the various diseases they will be exposed to in the first months of life. Therefore, newborn calves rely on the ingestion of maternal colostrum to achieve passive transfer of immunity.
Colostrum provides the calf with immunoglobulins (Ig), also called antibodies. Antibodies are essential proteins for the protection against diseases. Achievement of successful passive transfer is associated with blood IgG concentrations of 10 g/L at 24 hours of age. Calves that fail to reach this level are considered to have failure of passive transfer (FPT), a condition that is highly correlated with increased mortality and morbidity rates and reduced lifetime performance. The best defense against FPT is to feed 4 quarts of good quality colostrum as soon as possible after birth.
Time of colostrum feeding is critical. Colostrum should be fed within the first two hours of life as the ability of the calf to absorb Ig declines rapidly after birth.
Milk the cow as soon as possible after birth, ideally within the first hour. Delaying milking will lower colostrum quality. Follow good udder preparation techniques and be sure the udder and teats are clean. Keep all colostrum harvesting equipment clean and disinfected.
Sometimes providing healthy, high quality colostrum to the calf can be a challenge. Colostrum IgG concentration is highly variable and dependent on the age of the cow, dry cow management, vaccination program, udder health, time of milking, etc. Colostrum can directly transfer many diseases such as Johne’s, BVD, BLV and Salmonellosis and is commonly contaminated with E. coli, Rotavirus, Coronavirus, Mycoplasma and other pathogens.
Colostrum replacers are an excellent alternative to maternal colostrum. Feeding a colostrum replacer ensures that calves consume a constant amount of Ig in a single dose to achieve successful transfer of immunity.
Storage and Handling of Colostrum
Storage and handling of colostrum can make or break a good colostrum management program. Storing colostrum in small containers will speed up the chilling process and slow down bacteria growth in the colostrum. Colostrum can be refrigerated up to 48 hours or stored in a freezer for one year. Heat colostrum using a warm water bath where temperatures do not exceed 120 degrees F. High thawing temperatures can destroy antibodies in the colostrum.
Maternity pens are a good source of pathogen exposure for newborn calves. Keep maternity pens clean and well bedded. Ideally, have only one cow in a pen at a time. Do not use maternity pens for sick animals. Maternity pens should be cleaned and disinfected between calvings.
Handling Newborn Calves
When dealing with newborn calves, focus on cleanliness and quickness. Always wear latex gloves and change gloves as needed. Remove calves immediately from the dam and place in a clean, well bedded environment. Removing calves quickly will reduce their risk of pathogen exposure in the maternity area. Use towels to vigorously dry and clean the calf. Dip the navel with 7-percent iodine and administer any recommended vaccines.
The first few hours of a calf’s life is critical to any calf program. Following these key steps in a newborn calf program will help ensure a healthy replacement for your herd.