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Colostrum - Getting Calves off to a good start.

Colostrum - Getting Calves off to a good start.

Correct calf management during the early stages of life is a vital element of any calf-rearing enterprise.

Vet Graham Shepherd of G Shepherd Animal Health, offers his advice on how to get calves off to a good start.

Colostrum is by far the most important factor in effective calf management

Colostrum from the dam should be the first choice, but its quality should always be tested using a colostrometer. The instrument is inexpensive and uses a simple, traffic lights system to indicate antibody levels. If the quality falls below standard, colostrum from another cow can be given. It can be pasteurised, to prevent cross infection, he says.

Another option is to add a purified, powdered colostrum supplement [link to relevant page], containing additional antibodies. Special care should be taken if Johne’s Disease is present within the herd. In this case, a programme of calving and calf management should be drawn up with veterinary guidance. A typical Holstein-type calf should receive 3.8 litres of colostrum as soon as possible after birth, states Dr Shepherd.

“There is some debate about whether to tube-feed colostrum or encourage the calf to drink through a teat. I would advise tube feeding, as long as the equipment being used is hygienic. Teat feeding is a slow process and research has shown that this practice often results in the calf receiving too little colostrum to gain full protection.

“The temperature of the colostrum should be as close to the calf’s body temperature of 39 degrees Centigrade as possible. This is another reason why tube feeding is favourable; the faster speed of ingestion means that all the liquid is taken at the correct temperature. Colostrum feeding should continue for the first few days of life,” he adds.

Despite describing colostrum as a “super food,” Dr Shepherd stresses the need for careful storage.

“Colostrum is rich in nutrients and that means it provides an excellent breeding ground for bacteria. Unless fed immediately, it must be cooled within 30 minutes of collection.

Otherwise, there is a high risk of passing on infective material to the calf. Also, it is proven that spoilage bacteria interfere with the calf’s absorption of colostral antibodies. Rapid cooling can be achieved using the cooling setting on a pasteurisation machine, a specialised colostrum chiller, or by adding packs of ice, prior to refrigeration.”

Navel treatment should be another routine task, but it is sometimes overlooked on farms.

We advise the use of a strong, alcoholic solution of iodine, with the procedure carried out three times a day for the first three days of life. The preferred method is to use a hygienic cup for full dipping, rather than spraying. Teat dip, or any other water-based disinfectant, is not recommended.

Keeping the young calf comfortable and away from draughts is also essential.

“Maintaining the animal’s thermal comfort zone will reduce cortisone levels in the blood, which is another way of improving its immunity. A draught-free environment is vital, although the housing should also be well ventilated.

“A calf should have plenty of clean, dry bedding. If the weather turns cold, a calf coat can be used, for extra protection. Dairy-bred calves are often lean with thin skin, compared with other cattle breeds. If the temperature falls, then a high proportion of the energy from the calf milk will be used just to keep the animal warm, so feeding volumes may need to be increased.

“A young calf’s thermo-neutral zone – the point at which it does not need to use up extra energy on heating – is 10-25 degrees C. For every 1 degree C below the thermoneutral zone, it will require 2% more energy from its food. Therefore, a young calf at freezing point will require 20% more milk or milk powder.”

Where calves are group housed before weaning, the maximum group size should be 15 animals per pen and they should all remain in the same group until they are fully weaned.

Some units have a policy of removing older calves and replacing them with younger animals. However this will lead to a build-up of bugs, particularly those which cause scour, such as rotavirus and cryptosporidium, he stresses. An “all in, all out” system allows for thorough cleaning, disinfecting and the resting of pens between batches.

 “I like to think of controlling disease as being a battle between the calf’s natural immunity, versus its level of exposure to disease-causing pathogens. All management practices should be developed with the aim of increasing the calf’s immunity and reducing its exposure to disease.

“As dairy herds grow larger, it is even more essential to put in place a calf management protocol, for everyone to follow. It should begin the moment a calf is born and carry on right through until it joins the milking herd,” Dr Shepherd concluded.

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