Supporting Calf Immunity in the First Weeks of Life

Posted on September 24, 2019 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Dr. Jenn Rowntree, Vita Plus calf and heifer specialist
Feeding adequate amounts of high-quality colostrum is a critical management step to ensure adequate transfer of immunity from the dam to the calf. Unfortunately, some calves are left with less immune protection via colostrum than we would like. This can leave young calves vulnerable to health challenges, especially scours, in the first two weeks of life.

Extended colostrum feedings
Studies published in the past have evaluated the benefits of feeding colostrum during this high-risk period to provide local protection through immunoglobulins (IgGs) against pathogens within the gastrointestinal tract (GIT). Results of feeding 10 to 32 grams of IgG for the first 14 days of life have been positive, mostly showing reduced antibiotic therapy and fewer days of scouring in calves fed an IgG source. Another option implemented on some farms with plenty of colostrum is to freeze good quality colostrum (Brix score greater than 20%) in ice cube trays and add one frozen colostrum cube per feeding to each calf’s bottle or pail of milk during high risk periods of scouring.

Bovine plasma in milk replacers
An alternate, more economical approach to adding colostrum replacer or frozen colostrum to calf milk is to provide calves with a source of bovine plasma. Plasma is the liquid portion of blood that carries red and white blood cells and platelets. Spray-dried plasma proteins are processed to preserve their functional characteristics, including biologically active molecules such as IgG. Like colostrum and transition milk, it contains functional proteins, globulin proteins (like IgG), immune cells, and growth factors to support gut health.

At least 11 published calf trials, and many unpublished studies, have been performed comparing milk replacers formulated with and without plasma. Many of these studies showed fewer cases of scours and less antibiotic use in calves that consumed milk replacers formulated with plasma, and some even showed reduced death loss early in life and improved average daily gain preweaning.

One study in particular (Quigley and Wolf, 2003) included plasma at 5% of the final milk replacer formula; calves that received this formula had a 30% reduction in scours incidence and reduced total days on antibiotics compared to control calves. Positive results with plasma have also been achieved in studies when calves are challenged with scours-causing pathogens, such as Cryptosporidium parvum, Coronavirus and E. coli.

Depending on how much milk replacer your calves receive per day, feeding a milk replacer formula with 5% plasma could provide 5 to 10 grams of IgG per day. Feeding a milk replacer with plasma provides a local source of IgGs and growth factors, which can help protect the GIT in calves with inadequate transfer of IgGs from their dam and promote healing within cells lining the GIT following a health event.

Finding the right product for your farm
Vita Plus has formulated fortifiers for whole milk and milk replacers to support GIT health during early life. Adding plasma to milk replacers is economical too and is a source of high-quality protein.  Providing your calves with a source of plasma may help mitigate negative effects of GIT damage during times of stress and health challenges.  Ask your Vita Plus nutritionist or calf specialist for more information.

Category: Calf and heifer nutrition
Colostrum management
Starting Strong - Calf Care