As times change and farming becomes an ever more competitive business, farmers are all striving to get the best and the most from their calves. The first and most important factor in a calf’s first hours of life is colostrum.
A calf is born with no antibodies to protect it from anything in the outside world. Colostrum is rich in antibodies (immunoglobulins), which are crucial in offering protection from disease in the first few weeks of life.
Management of this crucial substance is vital to calf health and is an easy way to ensure calves have the best start.
Get the colostrum from the cow as soon as possible after calving. Two hours after calving the cow goes into ‘milk production mode’ and begins letting her milk down. This dilutes the nutrient rich colostrum stored in the udder.
The sooner you can administer colostrum to the calf, the better. When the calf is born the gut wall is ‘open’, allowing the antibodies in the colostrum to pass through the gut wall and into the blood stream. Unfortunately that also means it’s open for all kind of pathogens to enter the calf’s system.
As a guideline, the calf should receive colostrum within the first six hours of life. If the calf was to be left on the cow, the amount the calf would receive would vary greatly.
The calf should receive 10% of its body weight in colostrum. Therefore, a typical 40kg Holstein calf needs 4L within the first 6 hours of life. To ensure the calf receives enough, administer with a bottle, or via a tube.
Something which we sometimes take for granted is the quality of the colostrum. Even if we are feeding the correct amount in the desired timeframe, if it is of very poor quality it will not have the desired effect.
A good quality colostrum will contain a minimum of 50g immunoglobulins per litre. An easy way to measure the quality is with a colostrometer or refractometer. Any spare, good quality colostrum should be frozen for future use.
When administering colostrum, do so as calmly and quietly as possible. Minimising stress will maximise the absorption of immunoglobulins.
One last thing to remember throughout the management process is hygiene. Remember that calves have no immunity when born, so we do not want to be introducing dirt or disease to them unnecessarily.
Make sure the cow’s teats are clean before harvesting colostrum and make sure any equipment used (like bottles, teats and tubes) have all been thoroughly disinfected.