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Keeping Calves Healthy Part 2: Colostrum Management

Calving season is that time of year when we live in hourly increments. It’s not particularly a time for forward planning, unless it’s for that next cup of coffee, but the moment that calf hits the ground, forward planning begins whether we like it or not.

In the previous article, we covered the disease triangle:

Remember: We discussed how biosecurity practices and animal movement can act at the environment corner of the triangle to reduce exposure to the pathogen, and minimize calfhood disease.

When we consider HOST susceptibility, the importance of COLOSTRUM for calf immunity is no secret. Unlike some other species, calves do not receive any immunity from the dam while in utero, they rely completely on colostrum intake to receive protective antibodies (the proteins that help fight disease) from mom!

Vaccinating for scours is a great way to ensure the dam produces the best colostrum possible, but it is only one of many tools for preventing a multi-factorial disease like scours!

When considering a colostrum management plan, it is important to keep in mind the 3 Q’ s: Quickly, Quantity, and Quality.

Quickly:  I’m sure that everyone is aware how important it is to get the colostrum into that calf in the first 6 hours of life, because the ability to absorb maternal antibodies across the gut wall decreases rapidly outside of that window. Despite the time crunch, if using frozen colostrum, it is important to thaw it using warm water, and NOT IN THE MICROWAVE, as excessive heat can damage the important proteins.

Quantity: Perhaps less well known is that a calf requires 3-4 liters of good quality colostrum to get adequate levels of antibodies in its system. If using commercial colostrum, this is equal to 2-3 packages, split over 2-3 feedings.

Quality: This is where even the most well managed producers can fall into a trap. Even if the other two Q’s are covered, if quality is lacking, we can see failure of passive transfer in calves. So, what is good quality colostrum?

Good quality beef cow colostrum contains between 50-100g/L IgG (Immunoglobulin G is the primary antibody passed from cow to calf through colostrum). Unfortunately, immunoglobulin concentration is not something we can assess by color, or even consistency because those can vary. The concentration of IgG in colostrum can be influenced by the volume of colostrum produced, the exposure of the dam to pathogens, and even maternal nutrition. So, making sure the calf sucked is a great first step, but how do we know he is getting what he needs from mom?                       

A simple blood sample taken by your vet in the first few days of life can provide an assessment of passive transfer, and is something to ask your vet about if you are concerned about calf disease or colostrum intake.                        

You can also measure colostrum quality on farm using a cow side Brix Refractometer or Colostrometer. These tools are reasonably priced, and a good investment when the cost of supplementing with dried colostrum (or not) is considered. It is not practical to test every cow, but sampling a few representative cows from each management group should give you an idea of what is happening at the herd level. Checking cows that are already in the chute for assistance with calving is a great place to start, as those calves are more likely to be disadvantaged from the get go.  Heifers and second calvers can be expected to have poorer quality colostrum, so testing and supplementing would be warranted in these cases as well.

This is a quick and easy way to ensure that your calves are getting the best start possible, and protecting a calf that you have already been investing in for the past 283 days!

If you have any questions, or want to discuss colostrum management we are happy to help!

The links below will provide more information about colostrum management and a description of the tools!


http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/faq8021

http://extension.psu.edu/animals/dairy/nutrition/calves/colostrum/das-11-174

Sincerely,

The SWAHC Veterinary Team

Written by: Dr. Brittany Wiese

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