Calves are a valuable part of every dairy’s future, and good newborn management is important to ensure they get off to the start they’ll need to become high-performing herd replacements.
Calves are born with a naive immune system and rely on the first feeding of high quality colostrum or colostrum replacer to provide the essential nutrients and antibodies necessary for optimal health. This passive transfer of antibodies and immunoglobulins (or IgG) is critical to a calf’s long-term performance and health, according to Sandra Godden, DVM, DVSc, University of Minnesota School of Veterinary Medicine. “Failure of passive transfer continues to affect a significant portion of North American dairy calves, contributing to high preweaning morbidity and mortality rates as well as impaired long-term health and performance,” she says. “A successful colostrum management program will require producers to consistently provide calves with a sufficient volume of clean, high quality colostrum within the first six hours of life.”
The timing of the first colostrum feeding has lasting impacts on calf health and performance, according to Tom Earleywine, PhD, Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Products. “Calves are born into an environment which will contain some bacteria. As soon as the newborn hits the ground, the race is on between environmental bacteria and the antibodies in the first feeding of colostrum to determine the health of the calf.
This is why it’s important to feed the first feeding of colostrum within one hour after calving, if possible, and to do an effective job of maintaining a clean calving area.”
Research from the University of Arizona2 shows that achieving passive transfer puts calves on a path to greater lifetime success. In this study, 68 Brown Swiss calves were fed either 2 liters or 4 liters of colostrum shortly after birth. The researchers then followed these individuals through their second lactations and found several advantages to feeding the additional colostrum. Calves fed 4 liters had 0.51lb. higher average daily gain and conceived for the first time 2 weeks earlier. Through two lactations, these heifers had a 12% higher survival rate and produced over 2,200 more pounds of milk.
Colostrum quality is an important part of newborn care, and producers should be sure to check quality routinely with a colostrometer or brix refractometer. Colostrum should be of high quality and collected in a sanitary manner to reduce bacterial count. Producers who have difficulties harvesting clean maternal colostrum will want to consider a colostrum replacer.
There are several colostrum replacers in the marketplace, but their performance varies, according to Geof Smith, DVM, PhD, North Carolina State University. “There is a significant difference in how well the antibodies in different products are absorbed,” he wrote in a paper published in Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
“It’s important for producers to choose the highest quality product they can find, especially since newborn calves are a valuable, fragile part of each herd,” Earleywine says. “A colostrum replacer should have a minimum of 100 grams of IgG in one dose, and the more concentrated the mixed product is, the better it will be absorbed by the calf. Be sure the product label says it contains IgG and not globulin protein, as these are not the same and have different levels of absorption and availability to the calf. Proper mixing and hygienic feeding, as soon after birth as possible, are other critical components to success.”
High-quality colostrum replacers offer consistent immunity which also can be more convenient than maternal colostrum on many farms. This is especially true when considering the time needed to properly test colostrum quality as well as potentially freeze or thaw high quality product.